Where Have All the Nuns Gone? The Catholic Schools?
The Catholic Children? The Catholic Identity?
In the days before the Changes, nobody used words like
liturgy or eucharist or reconciliation.
It was Mass and Holy Communion and Confession.
Simple, straightforward words. Everyone knew what they
meant. We didnít talk about rubrics, and most
laypeople didnít know about ambos and aspersoria and
thuribles. That was the priestís business. Like a
doctor, he had his professional lexicon, and it was
really not our concern. We just followed along,
confident that we were being led to Heaven.
Thatís what we talked about then, Heaven and Purgatory,
and what we had to do to reach the one and shorten the
other. We shuddered to think about Hell, and so we
didnít talk about it much either. We just set about
working out our salvation with fear and trembling, like
St. Paul told us to do. All for the love of Jesus,
the Glory of God, and the Salvation of souls, we
used to say.
But you hardly ever hear about salvation anymore. The
subject just doesnít come up. Donít you wonder why? Are
Catholics that sure of Heaven, or is something else
I think itís the something else. There is
a deep-seated reluctance in them to broach the subject.
Something holds them back. Itís not that theyíre silent.
Thereís plenty of vapid talk out there. But if you cut
through the empty words and look below the surface of
the mush that passes for theology, youíll find the
Itís a triple-walled mental block.
First, people donít know what Heaven is anymore. Second,
they donít know whatís a sin and whatís not. And third,
they donít know what to do about that troublesome
doctrine, Extra Ecclesia Nulla Salus. These three
things make it nearly impossible to talk about
Consider the first obstacle. Too many years of agnostic
priests and professors telling us that we donít really
know anything about Heaven has dampened supernatural
faith and hope. Nothing seems clear. Questions arenít
answered; doubts are not dispelled. Retreats, religious
education lectures, and classroom discussions often go
something like this:
ďIs Heaven a place?Ē a student asks.
The pedant-in-charge shakes his head, but says nothing.
He strokes his chin and lowers his lids, pondering the
question. Everyone waits.
ďIt is a state of being,Ē he says at last,
carefully, as if he were imparting a deep truth.
The student persists. ďBut what does that mean?Ē
ďWeíre not really sure.Ē
The student sighs. He turns his head, looks out the
window, and never brings it up again.
Iíve heard this sort of thing too many times. No sooner
spoken, but the words evaporate, portentous as thin
smoke. Nothing adheres to the mind; nothing cleaves to
Enough of this nonsense. Of course Heaven is a place,
and those in authority should say so, loud and clear.
What this supernatural place is like is beyond our
imagination, but that doesnít mean itís not real.
It is above nature, incorruptible; its substance
I mean, come on, if Heaven is not a place, then where is
Our Lord? What does He see through His beautiful eyes,
and what does He touch with his Wounded Hands? And just
where is Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception, she who
was assumed body and soul into Heaven?
Theyíre not floating in some ethereal mist. Weíre
talking physical presence here. Someday, when we behold
our King and Queen reigning gloriously in Heaven, itís
real faces weíll see, real voices weíll hear.
The denial of the substantial reality of Heaven shatters
one doctrine after another. If Heaven is not a place,
what about the Resurrection of the Body? Arenít we
supposed to get our bodies back on Judgment Day? Our own
blood and bones? Our own fingers and toes? Thatís what
the Church teaches. Thatís what we believe. But where
would these glorified bodies go?
Ah, so thatís not so certain either, then.
The Incarnation, the Ascension, and the Second Coming
are all called into question. We wind up with some sort
of esoteric blather about the Next Life. They tell us we
have to have faith that life goes on after death, weíre
just not sure how. Perhaps itís a spiritual
immortality, unencumbered by flesh. Who knows?
The second obstacle to open discussion about salvation
is the problem of sin and its consequences. Christ died
for our sins. Everybody repeats the formula, but do the
words really sink in? Does anyone realize why?
To save us from Hell. Thatís why. Thatís what salvation
is. To rescue us from damnation. If weíre not saved,
weíre damned. Itís as simple as that.
Iím afraid people donít fear Hell anymore. They reject
the whole idea. Itís just too preposterous for the
modern mind; the image doesnít hold. Flames and darkness
and the stench of sulfurówho believes that?
But Hell exists. It is real. And it is eternal.
Imagine the very worst pain, the worst sorrow, the worst
regret youíve ever experienced. Feel again the anguish,
the bitterness, the most soul-wrenching loneliness
youíve ever felt. Thatís only a glimmer of what Hell is
like, and sin consigns one there.
Yet we canít talk about sin. We must not be
judgmental. Letís not mention the Commandments. Itís
as if sin didnít exist. Youíd think the priests had all
become Rogerian psychologists. By practicing
unconditional positive regard, negativity dissolves,
and a beautiful flower grows from the depths of the
perfect human heart, rather like a modern version of
Rousseauís Noble Savage. No taint of original sin for
them. Itís all good.
And whatís the effect of denying evil? Perdition, thatís
Think of all the things people accept now. Things we
used to call Mortal Sinsómortal, because they would kill
us. The Church used to warn us about them, so we would
not be lost, but thereís a lot of silence now.
The biggest one is artificial contraception. Iíll never
forget what happened the Sunday after Humanae Vitae
was issued. The encyclical was front page news in the
local paper. A lengthy article quoted a whole slew of
theologians who stated with seeming authority that the
teaching was not infallible. People could make up their
own minds about it. They were responsible adults.
Curious, I thought, as we went to Mass, expecting to
hear true Church teaching. But the priest didnít even
mention the encyclical, and not the next week, either,
nor the next. Later we learned that even bishops had
rejected it, and Rome did nothing. The dissent stood. No
one talked about it. Family planning was a private
matter, after all. What did celibate priests know
about marriage? they asked.
So people did what seemed right in their own eyes. There
were no repercussions. In all these years, I have never
heard a priest say from the pulpit that a woman canít go
to Communion if sheís on the pill, or heard a priest
talk about the evil of sterilization, the death blow to
the body, the infamous mutilation of the flesh.
They are reluctant to talk about the perversion of
homosexuality, even in the face of all the scandals.
They donít talk about adultery or fornication or
covetousness or theft. Lying? No, not a word.
They rarely speak about the beauty of Heaven, the
suffering in Purgatory, or the burning pain of Hell.
Imagine that. Nobody mentions that we may not all wind
up in the same place. There are no warning signs. I
guess thereís nothing to worry about.
Is everyone saved? Is no one lost?
The pedant speaks again:
ďJesus is so merciful,Ē he says with a wave of his
hand. ďHe couldnít bear to send anyone to Hell.Ē
ďBut donít you have to do anything to go to Heaven?Ē an
innocent student asks. ďDonít you have to be worthy?Ē
The pedant rolls his eyes.
The boy persists. ďYou have to be baptized, right? You
have to be Catholic.Ē
Another student pipes up. ďSince the Church is the
Mystical Body of Christ, donít the sacraments change us?
Make us fit for Heaven?Ē
The pedant lifts his chin. His gray eyes are distant, as
if he sees beyond the room, beholding something no one
else can see. He inhales, deeply, through his nose.
must not be divisive,Ē he says, then expounds at length
upon the new understanding, the probability of
universal salvation. There is invincible ignorance,
after all, and the whole idea of the unconscious
Christian. And then there are those near-death
experiences that seem to point to a pleasant afterlife
for everyone. Thereís no sense talking about it, he
But I say we must.
Why wonít the Magisterium clear the fog? Why wonít the
priests and bishops just say: Outside the Catholic
Church there is no salvation. Scared, are they?
Afraid to offend the infidels? Or worse, have they lost
Regardless of that, the doctrine is true.
Let me tell you what that teaching meant to me a long
time ago, when I was just a little girl. It was nothing
less than an invitation from Heaven.
I was not born Catholic, although I didnít quite
understand that. After all, I knew the Nicene Creed by
heart and dutifully recited it at Christ Episcopal
Church, proudly proclaiming my belief in the One Holy
Catholic and Apostolic Church. I was no Protestant, that
was for sure. But it took my fourth grade Catholic
friends to set me firmly on the Road to Salvation.
We used to stand in a circle at recess at Southwestern
School, hoping the teacher wouldnít notice and make us
play kickball or Red Rover or some other boring game. We
had important things to discuss. There were five of
usóDolores, Mary Kay, Anne, Barbara, and me.
Sometimes it was really cold. The snow banked over our
saddle shoes, and we huddled together, pulling our coats
close and shivering like crazy. But I hardly noticed.
Those girls told me the most astonishing things. Things
I had never heard before. Things about the Other World.
I could have listened to them forever. They had funny
words like Purgatory and Limbo and indulgences. They
actually believed in Hell. The devil was real, they
My friends knew all sorts of things about Heaven. It was
amazing. It was like they shared some secret knowledge.
There was no doubt in their minds that Heaven was a
place, and they talked about it as if they had been
there. I clamored to know more.
They looked at each other, shook their heads, then
looked sadly at me.
ďBut you canít go to Heaven,Ē they said.
ďíCause youíre not Catholic.Ē
ďWhat do I have to do to be Catholic?Ē
ďYou have to go to Catechism.Ē
Those words struck my heart like an arrow. Even though I
was not able to actually ďgo to CatechismĒ until I was a
sophomore in college, I made up my mind right then. I
would be Catholic. A real one, not just one saying the
Nicene Creed in the whitewashed Episcopal Church,
wondering how I could believe in the One Holy Catholic
Church and not be in it.
Those nine-year-old girls possessed the Truth, and they
didnít hesitate to let me know it. They told me what was
necessary for salvation because I was their friend. They
didnít dilute the doctrine. I didnít need to know about
the exceptions. I just needed to be Catholic.
Please spare me the nuances. They exist, I understand
that. There can be people in Heaven that we didnít think
would be there. Thatís good. I have no idea how the Lord
goes about rescuing people at the last minute who didnít
enter the Church during their life. I donít pretend to
know how grace burns the unbelief from their minds
before their souls depart this world, but I donít have
to know those extraordinary things. Thatís Godís
All I know is that every human being on this earth needs
to be rescued from Hell. Our Lord died to secure a
place for us in Heaven. He founded a Church, the One
True Church which is necessary for the salvation of
If thatís not true, then everything weíre doing is a
waste of time. Why should we fight so hard? Why should
we hold so closely to tradition? Why should we struggle
to stand against the flood of immorality and despair
that engulfs the world? What does it matter? Whatís the
point? If there is salvation outside the Catholic
Church, then we donít have to do anything. Just jump
right back in the Sea of Unknowing.
For myself, Iíd rather be like my old friends, those
valiant girls who first told me what I had to do to save