U.S. Catholic explores what it means that contemporary Catholics are ceasing to believe in the doctrine of Hell. Excerpt:

Over the last half-century hell has moved from being a fixture of the Catholic landscape to something that exists far over the horizon. “Other than hearing my father say ‘damn it to hell’ more times than I can remember, we didn’t discuss it much,” says Mona Cholowinski, who attended religious education at her parish in suburban New Jersey in the 1970s. “It did come up occasionally as the ‘place other than heaven,’ but the discussions were more about being good and avoiding temptation,” she says.

Annie Selak, a rector at the University of Notre Dame, sees a similar dynamic at work among a younger generation. “I would say that most of the high school and college students I’ve encountered rarely think of hell. The vast majority assume they are going to heaven. It seems like an automatic for them. They are good people, so of course they will end up in heaven.”

Some recent polling also bears out this change. The Pew Center on Religion and Public Life’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey found that only 60 percent of Catholics believe in hell. While comparable to mainline Protestants (56 percent), that’s far below the 82 percent recorded by evangelical Protestant churches.

I looked at that Pew survey of the religious beliefs of Millenials (see page 100 of this PDF). How do we reconcile the high professed rates of belief in Hell with sociologist Christian Smith’s finding that most young people today are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists? As he and his co-author Melinda Lundquist Denton write:

This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign divinity, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.

Maybe the answer is that they believe Hell exists, but the only person there is Hitler. It’s one thing to believe Hell exists, but it’s quite another to have its reality affect the way you think about your own life, fate, and behavior. Anyway, I’m always irritated by Christians who say we should drop belief in Hell because it seems so cruel — this, even though Jesus himself testified to its existence. What, are we here to make up this religion to suit our preferences? That is the way of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.