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Nashville priest getting the hell out

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Father Joseph Breen of Nashville’s St. Edward Catholic Church is retiring, and on his way out he’s had some parting shots for his peers and superiors.

Breen has had his differences over the years with the mastodons of the Church over some fairly commonsensical issues. He’s in favor of married priests and birth control, he’s tolerant of gay marriage, and he’s scornful of the idea of hell.

“What father would send a person to hell?” he wonders. “To me, if you believe in that, you’re saying God is basically sick…”

For such views, Rev. Breen has earned himself official reprimands from three different bishops.

One of Breen’s parishioners, Robert T. O’Gorman, a professor at Loyola, weighed in on Breen’s comments about hell in a piece in the Tennessean the other day. He compared hell to capital punishment, another hot – pardon the pun – topic in Tennessee of late. “One could say hell is religious punishment,” he writes. “It would be interesting to see in a poll how popular response to these two issues might correlate.”

Or maybe not so interesting. The two “beliefs” don’t correlate at all. For most people, the death penalty is an abstract consideration, while the existence of hell is an intensely personal one. And while the public is softening its stance on capital punishment, the age-old superstition about a fiery furnace that will roast one for eternity stubbornly persists in all its glorious irrationality.

The idiotic and monstrous idea of hell was no doubt invented by a priest in the first place, and the Church has flourished through the ages in no small part due to the doctrine of eternal damnation, an individual fate that only it, the Church (through intercession with Jesus Christ), could ameliorate. It gave the priests a ready-made penal system for keeping people in line. The Church was much more insistent on it than Jesus was, and more inventive and precise in its descriptions of the place.

Vatican II may have radically toned down the Church’s official dogma concerning hell, as O’Gorman writes, but it wouldn’t put the notion to rest, nor will it ever, the nature of fear and the lust for punishment being what they are. O’Gorman mentions the great theologian Karl Rahner (wasn’t that the guy on the “Dick van Dyke Show”?), “who held forth the possibility that no one ever goes to hell.” (Maybe no one ever goes there because it’s too crowded?) In that case, what would it be there for?

“It’s unfortunate,” Joseph Breen said in an interview, “even in today’s world people still believe in hell and eternal punishment.” Amen, Father Breen, and happy trails.

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