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Happiness in Hell and the Tablet: A Controversy in 1892/3
George Mivart was an English convert to Catholicism, a prominent scientist, and an amateur theologian. In the 1870s, he published a number of articles and books that argued that evolution exists, but operates in accordance to a plan laid down by God. For his reconciliation of evolution and theology, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Pope Pius IX in 1876. Encouraged, he went on to argue in a series of articles that happiness exists in Hell. The result was a torrent of letters, sermons and articles in various Catholic newspapers and periodicals, including the Tablet, the Month, the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, the Franciscan Annals and La Civiltà Cattolica. Some were sympathetic, though most were ambivalent or hostile.
In July 1893, all of Mivart’s articles on Hell were placed on the Index of forbidden works. At the time, Mivart formally submitted to the decision of the Congregation of the Index. However, in 1899, he protested the decision to keep his works on the Index, withdrew his submission, and subsequently published a series of articles that were critical of the Church. In January 1900, Cardinal Archbishop Vaughan circulated a letter which excluded Mivart from receiving the sacraments. Mivart died just a few months later. This sad finale has been examined elsewhere, but the controversy in 1892 and 1893 has received little attention, and the main focus when it has been examined, has been the placement of his works on the Index. This blog post will instead focus on the Tablet, the semi-official newspaper of the English Catholic hierarchy, and the property of Herbert Vaughan, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Not only was it the most prominent English Catholic newspaper at the time, it also became a major forum for an intense and bitter debate about happiness in Hell, and it contained a significant variety of responses.
Mivart explained in his articles on Hell that his goal was to defend and prove that the Church’s position on the afterlife was rational. His main argument was based on a distinction between two types of suffering, the poena damni, which is to say the loss of the Beatific Vision of God, and the poena sensus, which is to say the suffering of the senses, or punishment by “hell fire.” He pointed out that the Church is “definitely committed to the doctrine that the souls condemned to Hell remain there for all eternity.” However, he argued that the majority of souls in Hell were only condemned to the loss of the Beatific Vision, and not condemned to hell fire.
Mivart pointed out that the Church acknowledges that there are enormous “differences of condition” between those who are “excluded from Heaven.” Mivart argued that only those in a “higher state” of “grace” can desire direct union with God, and thus only they have the possibility of entering Heaven. However, the condition in Hell for those who were never elevated to this supernatural capacity of “grace,” for example, unbaptized infants, was, he reasoned, very different to those who received the supernatural capacity of “grace” and rejected it. Whilst excluded from Heaven, unbaptized children, according to Mivart, enjoy an “eternity of natural happiness” in Hell. Similarly for virtuous pagans from “heathen nations,” who, quote, “die with their moral and intellectual faculties so imperfectly developed as to be, in this matter, like children.” Being unaware of the supernatural capacity for union with God, these residents of Hell do not suffer, though their eternal happiness, according to Mivart, is of a much lower order to the supreme bliss experienced in Heaven. A full natural existence, he argued, complete with happiness, health, companionship, love and peace, is thus compatible with being in Hell. Mivart suggested that this has been the fate of the “immense multitude of mankind” that has died unbaptized. It is, Mivart concluded, only “baptized Christians,” who “knowingly and with malice sin mortally and so persist till death,” who are “really condemned to Hell, there to suffer, not only the state of loss, but the poena sensus also.” Even then, he contended, the level of suffering varies in relation to the demerits of the individual, and, he suggested, even those who suffer the worst afflictions prefer their sufferings to non-existence. Mivart based this on his reading of St. Augustine, who suggested that for every being, existence is preferable to non-existence. Mivart also argued that even the most damned of souls may benefit from a “process of evolution,” which takes place in Hell, and which may gradually reduce their suffering, though never to the extent of raising them to the state of grace, “for the tenants of Hell are its tenants eternally.” Furthermore, he argued, the damned may find in Hell a “kind of harmony with their own mental condition,” and find solace in the society of like-minded souls, who together may hug their chains in their shared situation.
Having outlined (albeit very briefly) some of the key themes from Mivart’s argument for the existence of happiness in Hell, it is now time to turn to some of the responses it provoked in the Tablet. The earliest response in the Tablet was an editorial that appeared in the paper on the 3rd December 1892. The editorial, though critical of most of his arguments, was polite and reasonably sympathetic. According to the editorial, Mivart was operating on “a strictly orthodox basis” and on “solid theological ground” when he argued that “the state of unbaptized infants in the next world is, … one of [natural] happiness,” even though they are excluded “from the Beatific Vision, … outside of Heaven, and therefore in a place which theologically cannot be described by any other name than Hell.” The editorial was however critical of his other arguments. In arguing that unbaptized adults from heathen lands experience a state of natural happiness in Hell, and furthermore narrowing the range of “Hell-deserving” sins for the baptized, he was, the editorial concluded, an advocate for the sinner. The editorial suggested that Mivart’s article moved from the frontier of Catholic teaching to the “territory of personal opinion.” Examining Mivart’s engagement with Augustine, and in particular the ontological claim that “it is always better to be than not to be,” the editorial countered that it might “be better for the general harmony of being as a whole,” that sinners “should exist in Hell rather than pass into nothingness,” but not at all better for the sinners as individuals. Despite its critical reception of Mivart’s article, the editorial did conclude that there was “much that is good and beautiful and true” in it, and that it had been loyally conceived, “with the admirable intention of smoothing the path to faith for those who find in the terrible truths of Eternal Punishment a constant and crucial religious difficulty.”
The issue of the 10th December 1892 contained a number of letters on the subject of happiness in Hell. John McIntyre, a priest who in later years would go on to become Archbishop of Birmingham, submitted a letter which criticised the editorial from the previous week for being overly sympathetic towards Mivart’s article with regard to the fate of unbaptized children. “Theologians of greatest weight,” McIntyre observed, “from St. Augustine onwards, teach by no means the more lenient doctrine [with regard to the fate of unbaptized children].” How then, he asked, “can it be said” that “it is undoubtedly the accepted teaching of the Church that unbaptized children … enjoy a state of natural happiness?” McIntyre refused to venture an explicit opinion as to the actual fate of the souls of unbaptized children, but he certainly objected to any attempt to invoke the teachings of the Church to support the claim that they would experience a measure of happiness in the afterlife.
A letter submitted by Catholic convert John Godfrey Raupert under the pseudonym of “Viator,” compared and contrasted Mivart’s claims with the propositions laid down by St. Aquinas, on the grounds that Aquinas is widely accepted as a “safe guide” to acceptable theology. According to Viator, Aquinas, unlike Mivart, argued that it is “a mortal sin” for adults, who have reached the age of reason, even if unbaptized, not to use their reason to orient themselves to God. In response to Mivart’s claims that the damned prefer their existence in Hell to non-existence, Viator argued that whilst according to Aquinas it is natural and good to desire to exist, some people override this natural inclination. This, Viator suggested, applies especially to the eternally damned, as to be eternally miserable is a fate worse than ceasing to exist. Raupert would later elaborate upon his defence of the “doctrine of hell”, and in particular the idea of endless as opposed to merely prolonged punishment and torment, in Thoughts on Hell (1899), and Hell and its Problems (1912).
On the 11th December, Edward Bagshawe, the Bishop of Nottingham, submitted a pastoral letter to the priests of his diocese. This was then printed in the Tablet. It argued that Mivart’s article perverted “to a most grievous extent, and in a most dangerous way, the doctrine of the Catholic Church.” Referring to the Council of Florence, which occurred in the 15th century, and the Council of Trent, in the 16th century, the bishop declared that in the case of unbaptized infants, “we are bound by the faith to say that they have sinned in Adam, have truly inherited sin from him, have lost their innocence, have been made unclean, and by nature children of wrath. We are also bound by the faith to say that their souls after death go down immediately into the lower regions.” “It is heresy,” the bishop concluded, “to deny that the souls of unbaptized babies are guilty of sin, or that they are punished for their guilt.”
Several more letters on the subject were published in the Tablet on the 17th December. These were mostly critical of claims that unbaptized children might experience happiness in Hell. For example, a letter from a priest published under the pseudonym “a Priest on the Tremble,” was not directly critical of Mivart, but rather critical of a letter written by Canon James Moyes, the secretary of the Archbishop of Westminster, which had been published in the Daily Telegraph. Canon Moyes had argued that children who died unbaptized experienced some measure of happiness in Hell, on the grounds that “there can be no future punishment awarded to the innocent.” “A Priest on the Tremble” disagreed. He observed that according to the declaration at the Council of Florence, all souls who died in sin, even if “in original sin alone” and not mortal sin, “go down into Hell, to be punished,” albeit to suffer different levels of pain. “A Priest on the Tremble” stated that “the Church defines a future punishment in Hell for those who depart this life with the original stain upon them, as unbaptized infants do,” and he expressed shock at a representative of the Archbishop holding the opinion that “souls infected with original sin” were innocent and would enjoy a “future happiness.”
Not all of the letters were hostile to the idea that the fate of unbaptized children in the next world included some measure of happiness. One letter responded to John McIntyre, stating that the proposition that unbaptized children would not only be “deprived of the sight of God,” but also receive “an eternity of torment,” was, quote, “a proposition so horrible and so utterly revolting to the natural sense of justice implanted in us by God, … that if it was asserted by an angel of light as a fact, I would rather believe that I beheld a devil in disguise, who uttered a blasphemy against the mercy and justice of the Almighty.” The letter suggested that if such was to be the fate of unbaptized infants, then God may as well have “created them already in Hell.”
The author of the original editorial that had appeared in the Tablet on the 3rd December also responded to some of the hostile letters. In response to McIntyre’s argument that important theologians from St. Augustine onwards have taught “by no means the more lenient doctrine [with regard to unbaptized children],” he produced a list of Church Fathers and theologians who argued that the fate of unbaptized children in the next world is not one of suffering, even though they would spend eternity deprived of the vision of God. “That God should inflict … actual positive pain upon myriads of helpless children for a sin which they had no actual share in committing, … and that God should go on inflicting it endlessly and hopelessly during all eternity, is,” the author concluded, “a view, which no name, however respectable, can save from the stigma of being irredeemably coarse and repulsive.”
The Tablet was again full of letters on the 24th December. In response to the suggestion that unbaptized children were innocent, and that God would therefore not inflict them with “positive pain,” John McIntyre offered two points for consideration. Firstly, he implied that such a proposition was contradicted by the amount of “infant misery and suffering that is found the whole world through.” Secondly, he observed that at the Council of Trent, it was decreed that anyone who asserts that Adam injured himself alone, and not all those who followed him, or that Adam’s “sin of disobedience” had not “transfused” sin into the “whole human race,” should be anathematized. This declaration, McIntyre observed, is inconsistent with the idea that unbaptized children are perfectly and helplessly innocent.
The rest of the letters selected for publication on the 24th December supported the argument of the original author of the editorial. One letter expressed astonishment at “how some good people seem anxious to magnify the dominion of the devil at the expense of Christianity.” The letter concluded that “when the Holy Roman Church … shall have defined that all those poor little Innocents are all suffering eternally, it will be time enough for the “priest who trembles” to ask us to tremble with him.” A letter from Archbishop Vaughan’s youngest brother, John Stephen Vaughan, who subsequently went on to become the auxiliary Bishop of Salford, also criticised “A Priest on the Tremble.” While extremely critical of Mivart’s article, he did agree with him that the declaration at the Council of Florence was compatible with the proposition that unbaptized infants in the next world only suffer the pain of loss and not the pain of sense. He observed that “inequality of pain, … does not here mean that the little unbaptized darlings are to be punished by the fire of Hell,” albeit “less severely than souls dead in actual sin,” but rather that they will suffer “the pain of loss only.” Canon Moyes was also critical of “A Priest on the Tremble,” repeating the argument that the term “punishment” in the declaration at the Council of Florence was compatible with unbaptized children suffering merely the pain of exclusion from the Beatific Vision, without the further infliction of physical suffering. He did however clarify that he did not deny that newly born children are marked by the stain of original sin, and that when he had used the term “innocent” in an earlier letter, he had intended it only in a non-theological sense.
The controversy rolled on into 1893. A series of letters in the first three weeks of January, heatedly debated whether the fires of Hell are metaphorical or real, whether it is permitted or illicit for a parish priest to teach his flock that they are only metaphorical, and whether “happiness is compatible with eternal burning.” However, on the 21st January, the editor of the Tablet decided that the controversy had gone on long enough, and he stated that “this correspondence must now cease.”
The controversy did not however cease. Despite the editor’s declaration, there were still occasional letters and articles on the subject in the Tablet and other periodicals throughout 1893. In summing up, most of the letters and articles in the Tablet can be divided into two main camps. Those that agreed with Mivart on just one point, that unbaptized children experience some happiness in Hell, and those that criticised any suggestion that any happiness may be experienced in Hell. One letter even described Mivart’s original article as “the most dangerous and pernicious article that was ever traced by the hand of believer or infidel.” None of the letters or articles argued that the destination of unbaptized children was anywhere other than eternal Limbo or Hell.
The Bishop of Nottingham denounced Mivart’s articles to the Congregation of the Holy Office. Whilst seven years later, Cardinal Archbishop Vaughan decided to exclude Mivart from the sacraments, on this occasion he defended him in a letter to the Holy Office. Nevertheless, the result was that all of Mivart’s articles on Hell were condemned by the Holy Office on the 19th July 1893, and by the Congregation of the Index two days later. In August, Mivart claimed in a letter to one of his friends, that he had been informed that his views on Hell were not condemned as such, and that he was entitled to hold them, but that they were inopportune. Convinced that his articles were placed on the Index merely because the time was not ripe for them, Mivart agreed to submit to the censure on the 10th August 1893. In an article published in December, Mivart defended his decision to submit, but he alluded to his hope that his articles would one day be removed from the Index. He never saw that day.
Several years later, in August 1899, Mivart, gravely ill, and perhaps sensing that he did not have much time left, protested the decision to keep his articles on hell on the Index in a letter to the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Index. Mivart was not satisfied with the response he received and withdraw his submission. He subsequently published a series of articles that were highly critical of the Church. He also staunchly criticised the Catholic Church for the role it played in the Dreyfus Affair. The Tablet’s response was swift and unequivocal. On 6 January 1900, the editor of the Tablet stated that in the past, a charitable effort had been made to regard Mivart as lying somewhere within the field of theological opinion, or at a regrettable but tolerated divergence from the spirit of the Church. The Tablet now charged Mivart of having crossed a line, concluding that he could no longer be regarded as a member of the Church, but rather as “an outsider and an opponent of the Catholic faith.” According to the Tablet, Mivart had engaged in intellectual vanity, blasphemy, heresy, deception, calumny and cowardice. An exchange of heated letters with Cardinal Vaughan, the owner of the Tablet, ensued. Vaughan required Mivart to sign a profession of faith. Mivart asked the Cardinal to send him a letter expressing regret for “the abusive utterances” in the Tablet before he sign the profession of faith. Mivart categorically refused to sign the profession of faith on 23 January 1900, though by that time, Cardinal Vaughan had already circulated a letter to the clergy of the Archdiocese of Westminster (on 18 January), informing them that Mivart had “declared, or at least seemed to declare, that it is permissible for Catholics to hold certain heresies”. Vaughan forbade his clergy from administering the sacraments to Mivart until “he shall have proved his orthodoxy.” Mivart died just a few weeks later.