We’ve had several occasions to take Fr. Ron Rolheiser to task in our New Oxford Notes section ( March 2002, Jul.-Aug. 2002, Oct. 2002, and Feb. 2003). The writings of Fr. Ron we’ve commented on appeared (save one) in Catholic San Francisco, whose Publisher is Archbishop William Levada. Fr. Ron is a dissenting theologian and a syndicated columnist, and the first time we took him to task, our title was “Archbishop Levada: Call Your Office!” Of course, Levada did nothing. That Levada has continued to allow Fr. Ron’s column in his newspaper says a lot. Levada apparently isn’t much bothered by dissent. In our New Oxford Note (Oct. 2002), we said: “If a bishop allows Fr. Ron’s column to appear in his paper, you won’t want to take it for granted that that bishop is a reliable defender of the Faith.” And now Levada has been appointed by Pope Benedict as the chief doctrinal watchdog of the Catholic Faith. What gives?
In his column in Catholic San Francisco (April 22, 2005), Ron deals with Hell. Ron tells us about a young lady who committed suicide. Says Ron: “She had descended into a place into which no human love, medicine, or psychiatry could penetrate, a private hell beyond human reach. What hope do we have in situations like this? Humanly there isn’t any. Outside of faith, she is lost to us and we are helpless to reach her. But, inside of faith, there is hope, surprising hope. We have a doctrine within our faith, which to my mind is singularly the most consoling belief in all religion, namely, the belief that Christ can descend into hell…. Jesus ‘descended into hell.’ What does this mean?… The sin of Adam and Eve closed the gates of heaven and they remained sealed until the death of Jesus. Jesus’ death opened them and Jesus, himself, in the time between his death and resurrection, descended into hell (Sheol, the Underworld) where all the souls who had died since the time of Adam somehow rested. He took them all to heaven.” But the Catechism (#633) doesn’t say that Jesus took them all to Heaven. Here’s what it says under the subtitle “Christ Descended into Hell”: “Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, ‘hell’ — Sheol in Hebrew…. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into ‘Abraham’s bosom’…. Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.”
Ron goes on: “It suggests that Jesus’ descent into hell refers especially to the manner of his death, to the depth of chaos and darkness he had to endure there, and to how the depth of love, trust, and forgiveness he revealed inside that darkness manifests a love that can penetrate into any hell that can be created.”
Then Ron reminds us of a famous painting by Holman Hunt which “depicts Jesus outside a door with lantern, and the picture suggests that we, who are inside that door, must open the door to allow Jesus in, otherwise he will always remain outside.” Ron says: “I remember as a child, seeing this image on a holy card, and being haunted by it, fearing precisely that one day I might be too hurt, depressed, or otherwise paralyzed to open that door.”
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