Friday, February 22, 2019


We do, here and now, separate him from the precious body and blood of Christ, and from the society of all Christians. We exclude him from our Holy Mother Church and all her sacraments, in heaven, or on earth. We declare him excommunicate and anathema. We cast him into the outer darkness. We judge him damned with the devil and his fallen angels and all the reprobate, to eternal fire and everlasting pain! Beckett (1964)

This simultaneously illustrates the power and the weakness of Roman Catholicism:

Historically, the clout of the Roman Catholic church was grounded in psychological coercion. A credible threat of damnation. It lost its clout when it lost its psychological leverage. To be effective, the threat must meet two conditions:

i) Eternal damnation is real

That requires faith, because, as a rule, we have no direct experience of the afterlife in this life. Hellish near-death experiences might be an exception. So it requires you to believe something you can't directly verify. As such, threats of damnation have no traction for skeptics and infidels.

Even if there's a public excommunication, that has no visible effects. The ground doesn't open up and swallow the excommunicant alive. A lightning bolt doesn't strike him dead. 

Increasingly, moreover, priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes no longer believe in damnation. They think hell is empty or mostly empty. 

ii) The Roman church holds the keys to heaven and hell

Even if you believe in everlasting punishment, you must also believe that God entrusted the keys of heaven and hell to the Catholic church. That's why the threat has no traction for orthodox Protestants. We don't think the papacy is the keeper of the keys. 

The church of Rome relied on bluffing people into submission. But if you suspect that behind the stern poker face it holds a losing hand, that's a risk-free proposition. 

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