I recall arguing once with a Catholic friend of mine during our teenage years. He was from a big city far away and attended a publicly funded Catholic high school. I was a homeschooled boy from the country. The debate was on whether there were souls in Hell. I held the ideologically rigid belief that many souls go to Hell.
Not so much for my friend. His contention was simple: “Well, my teacher says there are only two people in Hell: Judas and Hitler!”
It’s always “Judas and Hitler” and no one else. Poor Nero, Sanger, and Stalin fall short. The gate to Hell is apparently narrow, the way hard, and few, or rather only two, enter into it. (As an aside, I am gratified to say that my friend now homeschools his children.)
The truth on Hell is that, with all due respect to the great Dante Alighieri, the Catholic Church does not specifically claim that any certain souls are in Hell. There is no anti-canonization process, whereby a pope formally declares a soul to be forever damned (though Mt. 26:24 is not promising for Judas). As much as he may wish, Pope Francis cannot validly condemn Swedish inventor Sten Gustaf Thulin, the creator of disposable shopping bags, to forever dwell in the abode of the damned — no doubt sentenced to carrying a family’s supply of groceries in plastic bags that simultaneously rip open in the middle of a busy crosswalk. Indeed, recently, it seems the Catholic Church is challenged enough trying to properly canonize saints, much less declare certain souls in Hell.
If nothing else, it is notable that my friend, even within the context of a hyper–social justice–inspired relativism, commonly known as Catholic high school, still believed that there were at least two souls eternally damned. He had a lead on many Catholics today.
Take, for instance, a priest that political commentator Faith Goldy recently spoke with in Ottawa, just hours before the first public Satanic black mass in Canada. “Father, do you believe in Hell?” was her question. His response: “I believe in heaven.”
Another cleric once allegedly went so far as to say, “Hell does not exist, only the disappearance of sinful souls.” The cleric in this instance was the bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. The Vatican quickly dismissed this quote, produced by the nonagenarian atheist Eugenio Scalfari, as not a faithful transcription of the pope’s words.
And there is the recent controversy surrounding Bishop Robert Barron. Barron professes, as did the problematic Jesuit theologian (a redundant term) Hans Urs von Balthasar, that it is reasonable to hope that no human person is in Hell. Not Judas, Hitler, or even the infamous Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who dastardly fought against Modernism in the Church. Dare we hope?
None of this is new or astonishing to Catholics who have not been asleep the past fifty years. From the top down, the doctrine on Hell, and how to get there, is deliberately confused or outright denied. Heinous does not even begin to describe how wretched this is. Inciting others to abandon a healthy fear of Hell is devious and contemptible. Our Lord declares we are to “fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).
What is new is that, given the rise of popular social media outlets, publicly questioning dubious teachings by clerics, such as on the nature of Hell, is facilely possible. Because of this, the issue of Hell is heating up, so to speak.
Enter Dr. Taylor Marshall. The founder of the New St. Thomas Institute, Catholic commentator au courant, and father of eight, has earnestly taken to critiquing Bishop Robert Barron’s belief that it is reasonable to hope for an empty Hell. Marshall, along with his co-host Timothy Gordon, rightly sees this issue as being at the heart of a Modernist deception. True Catholicism necessitates asking, “How do we get to Heaven?” as well as “How do we avoid Hell?” Since the eternal salvation of souls is at stake, Marshall is committed to contesting Barron on the subject of Hell.
Now, Marshall is not simply a nobody in the Catholic world. He is a perspicacious man, articulate, and overall adroitly Thomistic in his approach to doctrine. His YouTube videos are popular, his books well known — particularly his latest: Infiltration. Perhaps most essential of all, Marshall is not a cleric, and thus need not fear retribution from a bishop or superior for speaking out against Bishop Barron’s Balthasarian position. Dr. Taylor Marshall is in many ways the ideal person to debate Barron on Hell.
What of this? Regrettably, Bishop Barron refuses to debate Marshall. End of story.
A debate would certainly be a risk for Bishop Barron. If Dr. Taylor Marshall was convincing in his arguments, which is likely, considering, as he repeatedly states, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the very words of Christ Himself are on his side (e.g., Mt. 25:31–46), then Barron would look the part of a fool. This is not a good image for a bishop with a very public persona, including a robust 216,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel. Weighing the risk versus reward might not be worth it for Barron. Truth be damned.
Yet, at least publicly, Bishop Barron presents a different reason for not engaging Marshall. Barron’s own words on Twitter are telling. In responding to a tweet with regard to debating Marshall, Barron wrote: “Did you read his [Marshall’s] book? I have zero interest in giving him any sort of platform.”
This is a reference to Marshall’s book Infiltration, which carefully details how the troubles plaguing the modern Catholic Church have an actual foundation — i.e., not simply clericalism. Bishop Barron is signalling that Catholics, such as Marshall, who dig beneath the surface and genuinely seek to uncover the sickness and scandal in the Church are to be shunned. They are, according to Barron, undeserving of “any sort of platform.”
How incongruous this position is for Bishop Barron. In an August 2019 article from the also theologically troubled Jesuit magazine America, Barron was praised for meeting to discuss philosophical and theological matters with Dr. Jordan Peterson. Barron was lauded for discoursing with someone who has beliefs vastly different from his own. The article even avowed: “At some point, however, Bishop Barron’s example is not simply something to be studied: It should be acted upon. We need to get off the sidelines and try our own hand at evangelization.” One hopes that Bishop Barron rises to the example for which he is praised and consents to a similar platform for a fellow Catholic.
It all seems so sanctimonious. For Bishop Barron to refuse a debate with Dr. Taylor Marshall, simply on the grounds that Marshall wrote Infiltration, not only substantiates Marshall’s argument that the hierarchy in the Church has been infiltrated, but also furthers a narrative of what I call the Episcopal Leviathan.
As manifested by Pope Francis’s example, many hierarchs in the Church act with a Hobbesian strong-arm approach to dealing with subjects. They rule with an iron rod, rigidly constraining those under them to accept and obey what is said, without the ability to express heartfelt concern, much less (and I hate this term) dialogue. That Pope Francis has gone over 1,100 days without answering the dubia is evidence of this. Bishop Barron’s refusal to debate Marshall is perhaps another example.
An Episcopal Leviathan of rule is burgeoning currently in the Catholic Church. Every time bishops refuse to engage well intentioned Catholics in concerns about corruption, abuse, money, worship, or doctrine, but rather respond with insults, disdain, or silence, they are but a mega-structure, or Leviathan, desperately commanding power with a mighty, yet decreasingly fearful, sword. Lamentably, it seems Bishop Barron is utilizing this strategy. By refusing to debate Dr. Taylor Marshall over Marshall’s grave concerns, yet being simultaneously willing to discourse with non-Christians such as Dr. Jordan Peterson, Barron is wielding his sword against Marshall and all Catholics who rightly seek answers.
Marshall must continue to persist after Barron, come Hell or high water, for the Church needs the spirit of charitable correction now more than ever. It is the hard road, but that is appropriate, for “the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Mt. 7:13).
One prays that Bishop Barron take these words of Our Lord, words which are truly on apostolic fire, to heart. And at the very least, perhaps we can grasp at the hope that Bishop Barron will act as an attentive shepherd and engage Dr. Taylor Marshall in a fruitful debate.
Dare we hope?
Dan Millette is a husband and father of five. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.