Monday, November 04, 2013

Hell and the Sensus Fidelium

After having voice some initial objections to the "we can have good hope that there is nobody in Hell" theory, today I wanted to go on to look at the question from the point of view of the sensus fidelium of the Christian people, which deals with the Catholic "instinct" rather than with definitions and declarations. But, speaking of definitions, it could be argued that if the lack of any definitive Church statement that anybody is in Hell constitutes a real argument that it may be empty, then by similar logic, the decrees of canonization and the prayers of the Mass would signify that nobody is in Heaven except our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, and the canonized saints. After all, the Church has never offered "definitions" about anybody else.

I am being a bit facetious here. It could always be counter-argued that silence in the scriptures implies salvation, not damnation, but then again, that is begging the question, since that premise ("silence implies salvation") is exactly what is not proven.

But I digress. The teaching of the sensus fidelium of the laity is explained in Lumen Gentium 12, where it states:

"The holy people of God shares also in Christ's prophetic office; it spreads abroad a living witness to Him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to His name. The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One,cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples' supernatural discernment in matters of faith when "from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful" they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority..."

As far as I can tell, this is the first statement of the Magisterium where this concept is explicitly affirmed, but the teaching was commonly held and taught by Catholic theologians since at least the mid-19th century. Ludwig Ott mentions it, for example, in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. It was often referred to as the passive infallibility of the Ecclesia discens (the learning Church) in contrast to the active infallibility of the Ecclesia docens (the teaching Church). This is the sensus fidelium of Lumen Gentium. It constitutes a kind of "instinct" of the Catholic people. By virtue of the sensus fidelium, the faithful, in obedience to their pastors, are guided in the development of their traditions and intuitions, a kind of holy instinct exercised over a period of history. The notion is much abused now, such to suggest that we could positively establish what Catholic teaching is by means of opinion polls. Benedict XVI commented on this false opinion of the sensus fidelium - see here.

What does the Catholic sensus fidelium say about the idea of Hell throughout the entirety of Church history? There is no fast and easy way to answer this, for when we look at the sensus fidelium, we are not asking what the Church has taught, not looking for lists of definitions from the Councils or citations from Denziger. Instead of asking what the Church teaches, we are asking how the faithful have understood Church teaching. Essentially, we are looking at how culture has appropriated Christian truth. Thus, we are looking at things like artistic depictions of the mysteries of the faith, architectural designs, poetry and literature, popular devotions, and any other popular expressions or interpretations of the faith. Looking at all these expressions of faith collectively, and stretched out over the centuries, we can establish a fairly clear picture of the Church's sensus fidelium on a particular point of faith.

Eastern Iconography

In the Greek monastic tradition, it was understood that the wayward monk or careless layperson was in constant danger of being dragged off to Hell if they gave in to the temptations of the flesh. In the famous "Ladder of Divine Ascent" icon (12th century), monks who were insufficiently careful with the state of their soul are depicted being dragged off the ladder to heaven by demons with hooks and dragged down to Hell:

If this is the case with monks who were insufficiently careful with the state of their soul, what would be the lot of the sinning or wayward lay person? The instruction the viewer is supposed to take away from this image is that the way to salvation is difficult and it is easy to fall away; and, that falling away means being dragged to Hell. In other words, we have here a visual representation of our Lord's words that "Broad is the path that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it" (cf. Matt. 7:23). It also demonstrates that by this teaching, the Greeks understood that going to Hell was a very real danger, even for those reputed to be very holy.

In this Polish icon of the Last Judgment, we see a theme that we will see more of: Hell as a gaping mouthed monster swallowing the souls of sinners who flow into the mouth of the underworld through the "broad path":

Note the depiction of the torments of the damned in the dark area immediately to the left of the mouth of Hell. Again, the presumption is that Hell will have some human population.

In Illuminated Manuscripts

Moving to the west during the high medieval period, some of the most vivid depictions of the mysteries of the faith come from the vibrant illustrations of monastic illuminated manuscripts. Many such illustrations survive, many depicting images of Hell populated with human beings. Here is a particularly colorful illustration from around the year 1180:

In a later manuscript from Cleves around 1400, Hell is depicted as a gaping mouth swallowing up sinners. Note the demons at the lower left wheeling a basket load of damned sinners to dump into the frightening maw of the beast. This theme of Hell as a giant mouth grinding sinners was common in later medieval art.

It is worth noting that this particular picture was found in a Breviary used by lay persons. That is, this frightening image was meant to be contemplated as one prayer the Divine Office. Clearly, the lesson is meant to be hortatory - this could be you if you aren't careful.

One more example. In a Tuscan manuscript illustration that is doubly-offensive to the politically correct, a group of homosexuals is depicted walking with abandon along the path to Hell. The illustrations date from 1327-28. The text contains a version of Dante's Inferno detailing the punishments that await Sodomites:

Not only is it inferred that Hell will be populated, but a particular class of sinners is singled out as especially meriting Hell by their unnatural acts. Medieval man clearly understood Hell to be populated by human occupants in addition to the demons.

Last Judgment Depictions on Gothic Tympanum

With the 12th and 13th centuries, western Europe saw the rise and expansion of Gothic architecture. Pope Benedict XVI once called the Gothic cathedrals "Bibles in stone" and noted that in their resplendent artistic depictions, theology, art and daily life all come together to "reveal a synthesis of faith and art, harmoniously expressed through the universal and captivating language of beauty" (source).

One common feature in most Gothic cathedrals was the portal, the great door through which the faithful entered. In the high middle ages, it was common for the portals to feature depictions of the Last Judgment, usually above the door on a semi-circular surface called a tympanum. The purpose of depicting the Last Judgment on the portal was to call the faithful to recollect themselves before entering Mass; they were about to approach the altar of the Lord - was their soul sufficiently pure? They were about to enter to worship the eyes of the King and Judge before whom all secrets are laid bare, who would one day judge all men, sending some to heaven, some to damnation. Therefore, before entering Mass, one ought to recollect themselves and examine their conscience.

In this first picture, we see the tympanum above the portal of Notre Dame cathedral. At the center we see Christ seated as the Judge. Below on the left (our Lord's right hand), we see the blessed in the charge of an angel about to be led off to eternal life. On the right (our Lord's left), we see the damned in the charge of a demon, who has bound them all with a rope and is about to lead them off to damnation.

A similar portal from Bourges Cathedral in central France. Again, at the right hand of Christ we see the righteous, and at Christ's left the damned in the company of the demons being led off to damnation.

Both depictions, as well as numerous other Gothic portals, call to mind the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, in which our Lord says to those on His left, "Depart from me, ye accursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (cf. Matt. 25:41). Being that the purpose of the portal was to encourage the worshiper to recollect his mind and examine his conscience prior to Mass, the implication is that the portal images of judgment were meant to lead the worshiper to consider that this fearsome judgment could be his real fate if his life was not sufficiently pure and his conscience not sufficiently clean. In the portals, art meets praxis, leading the observer to contemplate his eternal destiny.

Other Literature

Earlier we mentioned Dante's Inferno. It has been stated in the past, most notably by Dorothy Sayers in her masterful introduction to the Divine Comedy, that no medieval literature so perfectly reflected the medieval mind as Dante's Divine Comedy. The whole structure of the Comedy presupposes a Hell in which sinners experience God's justice in punishment for their unrepentance. Far from being troubled about the idea of human beings in Hell, Dante sees it as a manifestation of the justice of God. In Canto III of the Inferno, the inscription upon the Gates of Hell reads:

Justice the founder of my fabric mov'd:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love

Thus, far from being tormented in their conscience about how God could let anybody go to Hell, or about how the presence of sinners in Hell would mean that God and Christ "lost", Dante, and with him the whole medieval tradition, see a profound justice in the fact - not the hypothesis - but the fact of human damnation.

We could further cite the 15th century Biblia Pauperum, "The Bible of the Poor", a very unique picture-book of Germanic origin depicting the Bible completely in pictures with very brief Latin captions. In the Biblia Pauperum's depiction of the Last Judgment, the damned are taken to Hell by a demon who binds them with a cord and drags them off to perdition. Note that, as this book was meant for the illiterate, it's purpose was not scholarly but hortatory. The faithful are supposed to contemplate this reality and amend their lives in light of it, precisely because it is implied that this could happen to them.

Mystery Plays

Medieval piety was nourished by theatrical presentations. Passion Plays depicted the last week of the life of our Lord; Mystery Plays depicted some mystery of the Faith or taught a moral lesson, sometimes using allegory. A very common theme in medieval Mystery Plays was the Day of Judgment, in which the just were depicted being carried away to Heaven, while the damned were dragged away to Hell by actors dressed as demons, usually to a hidden chamber under the stage or make-shift monster head representing the gates of Hell.

These plays were meant to inspire morality in the people, and fear of a real possibility of damnation was a clear part of this message. Again, the warning, 'This could be you.' These plays continued right up into the early modern period and occasionally still take place in certain areas of Europe.

Renaissance Art

During the Renaissance, multiple works were composed which depicted the pains of Hell, many of them at the behest of clerics or even popes. The most famous, of course, being Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel illustration of the Last Judgment, which Cardinals are meant to contemplate as they select the successor to Peter.

Above is a close up of the damned being ferried into Hell by the classical figure of Charon. Can we imagine anything more offensive than to suggest that a depiction of the damned be carried to Hell on the wall of the Sistine Chapel is not an extremely powerful argument that the Church does in fact assume that there are people in Hell? Especially given that this image was requested by the pope himself?

What the People Thought

The sensus fidelium of the Christian people, from the earliest days of Christianity on up, was clearly that not only was Hell a real place, but that there was a real danger that one could wind up there; not only this, but that it was in fact easy to wind up there, and that this was a particular danger to those who were careless about their salvation. In all this it was simply presumed that Hell had a human population, that real folks ended up in Hell.

And if people believed this, it was no surprise. It is easily deduced from the Bible. Hagiographies, such as the Golden Legend of Jacob de Voraigne were replete with stories of people going to Hell, souls in Hell appearing in visions to warn people against making the same bad choices, visions of the torments of Hell, etc.

The spiritual books consumed by the more literate and pious classes contained the same message. Thomas a Kempis, whose famous Imitation of Christ has been the most popular Christian spiritual book other than the Bible, frequently asked the sinner to contemplate the pains and duration of Hell. In a famous passage he writes:

"Persons shall be punished most for those sins in which they have offended most. The slothful will be pricked with red hot spikes; the gluttons will be tormented with great hunger and thirst. The lovers of luxury and dissipation will be immersed in sulphur and burning pitch and the envious will wail and howl like mad dogs. No sin will be without its proper punishment...One hours of pain there will be more grievous than a hundred years spent in rigorous penance here. There is no rest or comfort for the damned. At least here we have periods of rest from work and the consolations of our friends...

And if you can endure so little pain now, how will you stand everlasting torments? If you lose your patience over a small suffering now, what will the fires of hell do hereafter? You cannot have two heavens: it is impossible to enjoy yourself here and afterward to reign with Christ." (Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ, Book 1, Chapter 24).

Such passages are legion in devotional books of the late medieval and early modern periods. The hortatory value of such passages consists precisely in that the reader is invited to contemplate the pains of Hell as a very real possibility for their own soul. The knowledge that one's own soul can actually wind up in a state of eternal torment provides the impetus to do penance and cling to Christ. Note that the moral force of such arguments is drained considerably if the possibility of a soul winding up in Hell is not a real one.

Theological studies and popular sermons alike took for granted that people went to Hell. Both St. Thomas' Summa and his Compendium of Theology contain numerous passages on Hell, why its punishments are eternal, how the souls there suffer pain, of what nature is the "fire" that torments damned souls. St. Alphonsus Ligouri has many famous sermons on the pains of the damned and the nature of the punishments of Hell, as do many other saints, all of which were meant to be understood by the people as exhortations to avoid what was a real possibility - eternal damnation - and it was assumed that many others had already not managed to avoid it.

We must note an important distinction here: Christian sensus fidelium does not simply say it is really possible for someone to wind up in Hell; Balthasarians admit this as well. The sensus fidelium presumes that there are in fact already people in Hell, and that it is inevitable that people will wind up in Hell. In other words, Christians tradition views it as an impossibility that Hell is empty.

The truth is bound up with teaching, and teaching with learning. The Balthasarian can always retort that none of the evidence we have brought forward here are 'official Church teaching'. True. But there is more than the Church teaching; there is the Ecclesia discens, the Church learning, which reveals to us how the Catholic people, animated by the Holy Spirit and led by God, have understood and amalgamated the truths that the Church has taught them. In this case, the sensus fidelium of the Catholic people on the real presence of human beings in Hell is so weighty and universal as to render any arguments to the contrary entirely impotent.

The sensus fidelium is bound up with the development of doctrine and Christian Tradition. If the Balthasarian-Fr. Barron theorem is true, then all of these centuries of artistic, architectural and literary development, in fact the whole instinct of the Christian people, is without purpose. Our traditions are meaningless, and we might as well not even speak of a sensus fidelium or en ecclesia discens at all, because clearly the common understanding of the Christian people will have given way to the novelties of "experts."

To sum it up, Balthasar and Fr. Barron say it is "possible" that Hell is empty. The sensus fidelium presumes it is inevitable that Hell will not be empty; it is impossible for Hell to be empty. Balthasar says it is possible; the Catholic instinct says it is impossible.

Next time, we will examine the Fr. Barron-Balthasar empty hell theory as a denial of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church.


John said...

Boniface, you're not being subtle enough, because Balthasarians admit that having real souls in hell is a real possibility, and that we should be afraid of this eventuality. They just say it's possible that no-one goes to hell, not that it's CERTAIN that no-one does.

You will say that this is still false, and I agree. It's not possible. But you're arguments don't always address this subtlety.

More like Michel-fit-o said...

At least we're all gonna be fit in hell.

MaestroJMC said...

Excellent. According to some of the study that I have done, the sensus fidelium - understood to mean the common and constant belief and practice of the faithful - actually constitutes a part of the ordinary and universal Magisterium itself. Tanquerey makes this claim in his manual on dogmatic theology.

Also, one pre-Vatican II magisterial source that seems to speak of the sensus fidelium is Pope Pius IX in the document Tuas Libenter:
"Even if it were a matter concerning that subjection which is to be manifested by an act of divine faith, nevertheless, it would not have to be limited to those matters which have been defined by express decrees of the ecumenical Councils, or of the Roman Pontiffs and of this See, but would have to be extended also to those matters which are handed down as divinely revealed by the ordinary teaching power of the whole Church spread throughout the world, and therefore, by universal and common consent are held by Catholic theologians to belong to faith...It is also necessary [for Catholics] to subject those forms of doctrine which are held by the common and constant consent of Catholics as theological truths and conclusions, so certain that opinions opposed to these same forms of doctrine, although they cannot be called heretical, nevertheless deserve some theological censure." (Denzinger 1683-1684).

Boniface said...


I understand Balthasar's position. I understand he is not saying anything with certainty, only that there is a hope.

but my point is the sensus fidelium constantly depicts real people actually in Hell. To put the argument frankly:

Balthasar asserts it is possible that there is nobody in Hell.

The sensus fidelium implies that it is impossible that there is nobody in Hell.

The two are mutually exclusive.

Boniface said...


I inserted this paragraph to make it more clear:

We must note an important distinction here: Christian sensus fidelium does not simply say it is really possible for someone to wind up in Hell; Balthasarians admit this as well. The sensus fidelium presumes that there are in fact already people in Hell, and that it is inevitable that people will wind up in Hell. In other words, Christians tradition views it as an impossibility that Hell is empty."

John said...

That's better :-)

Anonymous said...

It seems to me the Balthasarians know better, the whole "It is possible to go to Hell" clause seems to be there simply to avoid being a formal heretic. They are really closeted universalists.

It is through Fr. Barron that the Balthasarian heresy has entered the mainstream, as only theologians read Balthasar himself. I really don’t know what can be done about it other than point out what should be obvious, that our Lord was constantly warning about those who would be cast into hell.

The whole thing is ridiculous, I can't believe its being debated to the degree it is.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Brother Boniface. Very well done, Sir. You are a careful and just man and you always careful and just with the claims of others you are critiquing.

Anonymous said...

Boniface, excellent. In other Words, "what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all".
Newman has something to say about the subject and against The "empty theory".


Robert James McLeod said... is a blessing to have discovered your blog. Thank you Michael Voris! I truly appreciate the clarity of your writings and the logical flow of your reasoning and the depth of your research. I am an Acatholic (sic) since I was baptized and confirmed before the age of knowledge and understanding and I hold a few Catholic doctrines to be false with infallibility taking the lead!
However, I enjoy being nervous in my faith. I shall endeavour to digest and contemplate your extensive blog base and website. God willing...

Thanks and God bless!

Anonymous said...

Do you ever read the Gospels? It seems like Jesus has a lot more trouble in the Gospel with people passing judgment on others than people sinning. “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You shut people out of the kingdom of heaven. You don't enter yourselves, and you won't allow those who want to enter to do so". Remember Jesus said the measure by which you judge is the measure that will be accorded you. This is why I think it is wise to preach a merciful God over one that is tossing an overwhelming percentage into damnation. Not that he won't do that to some, but the question is to whom and by what standard. Let's let Him handle that.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but I've stumbled onto more Castellani translations into English here:

Boniface said...


Just for the record, the Pharisees never warned that anyone would go to Hell, but Jesus Himself spoke of Hell or warned of Hell over 90 times in the NT, even warned that whole cities would wind up there ("Woe to you Chorazin and Bethsaida") and said the Pharisees would not be able to escape damnation. If warning of Hell means being judgmental, then Christ is the most judgmental one in the Bible.

Also, while it would be judgmental for us to say any one person is going to Hell, that is not what this is about. We are discussing the fact that people in general go to Hell, not speculating on the presence of any particular person there.


Anonymous, November 5, 2013 at 3:40 PM:

"It seems like Jesus has a lot more trouble in the Gospel with people passing judgment on others than people sinning."


"Do you ever read the Gospels?"

Do you?

Anonymous said...

Boniface, thank you for these articles. Once again, I think your blog provides a model for how to argue for tradition in the Church today. I've jumped into the discussion and I would appreciate any thoughts you have about my arguments.

Carl said...

Boniface, thank you for these articles. Once again, I think your blog provides a model for how to argue for tradition in the Church today. I've jumped into the discussion and I would appreciate any thoughts you have about my article. My basic argument is that we need a reality check on the nature of the Magisterium.

G.Burch said...

I was recently received into the Catholic Church, this year actually. This issue has been a real thorn in my side. But I think God that I have stumbled upon your blog to help clarify this. Dr. Ralph Martin and Michael Voris.

James said...

" is impossible to enjoy yourself here and afterward to reign with Christ." (Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ, Book 1, Chapter 24)."

## That basically means that most people in the Western world are damned, for the sins of not being poor, or of not being members of religious orders. The author overstates his case - he seems to assume that all earthly enjoyment is by nature vicious. Giving the author's setting in the, rather anti-intellectualistic, life of the late 15th Devotio Moderna, this is understandable, but regrettable. What cuts us off from Christ is not enjoyment of God's creatures - for which St. Paul himself gave thanks, but sin. (Jesus was not averse to the occasional meal with friends - He was no withered ascetic kill-joy, but was accused of being a "wine-bibber & glutton").

Boniface said...


I do not think Thomas a Kempis means it in the strictly narrow sense you are interpreting it; I believe he is simply restating what was taught in the Book of Acts, "through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." (Acts 14:22), and "all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution"; (2 Tim. 3:12)in other words, the Christian life necessitates suffering, either through mortification, sometimes persecution, often both.