Dear Bishop Barron,
Thank you for all your work defending and explaining the Catholic faith over the years. Thank you also for your excellent discussion with Lex Fridman on his podcast,1 in July 2022. Nearly all of it seemed well-framed, sound, and relevant. I myself have even written about the transcendent and distinctive Be-ing of God here on Catholic365.com, for example.
The excerpt, from 35:38 to 38:30, generated what-turned-into 16 questions, or sets of questions, from my perspective, the perspective of an ordinary lay Catholic, likely similar to many in your new diocese.
That excerpt covers these vital matters: God’s judgment and hell. It goes without saying how critical this topic is. In his article2 asking you to finally debate Dr. Taylor Marshall on the subject, Dan Millette states, “True Catholicism necessitates asking, ‘How do we get to Heaven?’ as well as ‘How do we avoid Hell?’” You’ve addressed this question before, in a 2011 essay. That piece also subsequently generated some questions here.
My questions have two sources or foundations: (1) clarifying the language, and (2) reconciling long-standing teachings from Catholicism’s sustained, consistent history.
(1) Clarifying the language. This is necessitated by a pitfall encountered when addressing modern audiences. One must reach out for language that conforms to their playing field. Surely you found this when you answered questions from other podcasters, such as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro, from such very different points-of-view.
That is, in conforming to other perspectives and languages and playing on their playing-fields, one naturally risks creating confusion for us ordinary Catholics.
(2) Reconciling Catholic teaching history. The questions also stem from a divide I’ve seen since returning to Catholicism about 20 years ago. So many writings and teaching of saints, Catechisms, Councils - dogmas and Scripture interpretations so long held by billions of true believers - get ignored. The gap between so many modern theologians and 1,900 years of holy teachers is widening to a canyon, almost so far that soon both sides will not hear the other at all.
In asking these questions, maybe I do not represent the ordinary Catholic. The questions jumped out for me personally, after listening to this excerpt, because I had just written a novel in which I had researched and dramatized these same questions. In the novel, Virtual Eternity: An Epic 90s-Retro Florida Techno Pro-life Love Story and Conversion Journey, I bring to life a young agnostic ladies’-man who converts to Catholicism and gains God’s grace to journey to heaven (and also to glimpse an antagonist in hell). So, to be true to the faith in accounting for his redemption, I felt I must align with eternal Catholic teaching.
Whether from an ordinary layperson’s view or not, I hope you can take some time to help clarify and answer these 16 sets of questions. The questions have three parts, two related to the excerpts from the podcast, which I urge the reader to listen to, in full. One part is related to your 2011 article.
(In the snippets below, the bold text refers to the questions.)
Part 1: The Metric for Reaching Heaven - Love and the Good
Mr. Fridman: “What does the final calculation look like, in terms of ending up in heaven? What does it mean to live a good life in the end? Is it… the average amount of sin you do is low? Are you allowed to make mistakes?” Bishop Barron: “The metric is love, right? And love is not a feeling. It’s an act of the will. To will the good of the other. That’s Aquinas again. To will the good of the other, as other…That I really want what’s good for you, as other, not connected to the black hole tendency of my own prideful ego, when I’ve broken that, I’ve forgotten self, and I’ve moved into the space of your own good… At the end of the day, when you examine your conscience, did I will the good of the other today? How effective was I at that?”
(1) Question: Are the “wanting” [what’s good for others] and “forgetting” [self] less acts than intentions and feelings? Or, put another way, must accomplishing the “metric” of love toward others, as an act, be accompanied by some large amount of these intentions and feelings behind it, in order to be considered “good,” such that the metric becomes having the feelings themselves?
(2) Question: Is that question about willing the good of the other the only question on an Examination of Conscience that we should consider? In other words, are there other acts, thoughts, or feelings that we should examine? If so, what are some Examinations of Conscience you recommend for us to use?
(3) Question: What is the ”good” in the “good of the other, as other” defined as? For example, is the “good” based on what the other’s goals are? Or what they should be? If so, what should they be? And, if their goals are not “good,” should we oppose those goals? If we oppose them, are we still acting for the other’s good?
(4) Question: Would you have answered the same if Mr. Fridman had asked, “What good should I do that I may have life everlasting?” (Matthew 19:16) 3
Part 2: Mortal Sin and Judgment
Bishop Barron: “Play it not so much as God the lawgiver, surveying, and you did three of these and four of those. God wants us to be fully alive… That gets us over this obsession with legalism, and ‘Did I do enough? Is that a big enough sin?’ God wants us fully alive. The key to that is willing the good of the other…” Mr. Fridman: “So to be fully alive is to be in love with the world. To love the world deeply, and what love means is the other.”
(5) Question: Could the phrase “fully alive” be interpreted by some (and perhaps even Mr. Fridman here) to lead into things that might divert away from the Trinity, such as attachments to earthly things, worshipping nature, absence of prayer, overeating, binge drinking, sexual indiscretion, and other distractions?
(6) Question: Would St Anselm’s advice below correspond to most modern people’s definition of being “fully alive?:
St. Anselm 4
Do not follow the great majority of mankind, but follow those who enter upon the narrow way, who renounce the world, who give themselves to prayer, and who never relax their efforts by day or by night, that they may attain everlasting felicity.
(7) Question: Should we hold that being “fully alive” is achieved most fully by following divine law?
(8) Question: Regarding God as the “lawgiver”: Is God’s divine law the source for what that “good” is? (See Question 3.) Given the quotes below, can we say that when, by our own free will, we choose not to follow divine law, we are choosing not to love God?
John 14 3
 He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them; he it is that loveth me. And he that loveth me, shall be loved of my Father: and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1995) 5
1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves.
St. Leonard of Port Maurice 6
All the damned bear upon their brow the oracle of the Prophet Osee, "Thy damnation comes from thee," so that they may understand that whoever is damned, is damned by his own malice and because he wants to be damned…
When Saint Thomas Aquinas's sister asked him what she must do to go to heaven, he said, "You will be saved if you want to be." I say the same thing to you, and here is proof of my declaration. No one is damned unless he commits mortal sin: that is of faith. And no one commits mortal sin unless he wants to: that is an undeniable theological proposition. Therefore, no one goes to hell unless he wants to; the consequence is obvious… Why torment yourself so? For it is certain that you have to commit mortal sin to go to hell, and that to commit mortal sin you must want to, and that consequently no one goes to hell unless he wants to. That is not just an opinion, it is an undeniable and very comforting truth; may God give you to understand it, and may He bless you. Amen.
(9) Question: The Catechism mentions the free choice to sin “gravely” in 1033 above. Also, St. Leonard mentions the choice of mortal sin in the quote above. A mortal sin is defined in the Catechism 5 (1472) as follows: “Grave sin deprives us of communion with God, and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life.” Can we regard as valid the teaching below, that Catholics should confess mortal sins at the sacrament of Penance?
The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) 7 - The Sacrament of Penance: Necessity of Confession
According to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, a doctrine firmly to be believed and constantly professed by all, if the sinner have a sincere sorrow for his sins and a firm resolution of avoiding them in future, although he bring not with him that contrition which may be sufficient of itself to obtain pardon, all his sins are forgiven and remitted through the power of the keys, when he confesses them properly to the priest.
(10) Question: What was meant by recommending we not focus on “you did three of these and four of those?” Can we regard as valid the teachings below, that Catholics should confess every sin by number and kind?
Council of Trent, 14th Session 8
If anyone says that in the sacrament of penance it is not necessary by divine law for the remission of sins to confess each and all mortal sins, of which one has remembrance after a due and diligent examination…. let him be anathema.
Canon Law 988 §1 9
A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1995) 5
1456 When Christ’s faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon. But those who fail to do so and knowingly withhold some, place nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, “for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know.”
The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) 7 - The Creed, Article VII: Two Judgments
The first takes place when each one of us departs this life; for then he is instantly placed before the judgment-seat of God, where all that he has ever done or spoken or thought during life shall be subjected to the most rigid scrutiny. This is called the particular judgment.”
(11) Question: Do mortal sins go beyond not-willing the good of the other? (This is a follow-up to Question 2.) For example, is missing a Mass on Sunday a mortal sin? Is fornication a mortal sin? Is birth control a mortal sin?
(12) Question: Can we regard as valid the teachings below, that people who have unconfessed mortal sins at death go to hell?
The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) 7 - The Creed, Article X: The Great Evil from Which Forgiveness Delivers Man
For whoever offends God, even by one mortal sin, instantly forfeits whatever merits he may have previously acquired through the sufferings and death of Christ, and is entirely shut out from the gate of heaven which, when already closed, was thrown open to all by the Redeemer's Passion. When we reflect on this, the thought of our misery must fill us with deep anxiety.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1995) 5
1033 To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."
1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.
Part 3: “Is Hell Crowded or Empty?”
The next set of questions are related to the questions above. You may have answered them in the past, since the article 10 I refer to was published about eleven years ago. In the article, you stated the following about the near-universal availability of final grace and salvation:
"[Catholic theologian Hans Urs von] Balthasar argued that, given what God has accomplished in Christ, we may reasonably hope that all people will be saved… [H]is keen sensitivity to the dramatic power of the cross convinced him that we may entertain the lively and realistic hope that all people will eventually be drawn into the divine love. My own conviction is that Balthasar has this more or less right. Catholic doctrine is that Hell exists, but yet the Church has never claimed to know if any human being is actually in Hell. When the Church says that Hell exists, it means that the definitive rejection of God’s love is a real possibility. “Hell” or “Gehenna” are spatial metaphors for the lonely and sad condition of having definitively refused the offer of the divine life. But is there anyone in this state of being? We don’t know for sure… Think of God’s life as a party to which everyone is invited, and think of Hell as the sullen corner into which someone who resolutely refuses to join the fun has sadly slunk."
(13) Question: Does one “definitively refuse” and “resolutely refuse to join” God’s life or perform a “definitive rejection of God’s love” by choosing not to follow God’s divine law?
(14) Question: Is fear of hell, that is, fear of the eternal separation from God, authentic and beneficial in guiding people to take the narrow path to salvation? According to John Hirschauer 11, you once stated that “the massa damnata [damned mass] view of many Church Fathers—the idea that the great mass of humanity will be lost—is no longer ‘effective’ in evangelizing in the modern world.” But can we regard as valid the teaching below, which suggests that the high probability of damnation would help persuade us sinners to repent?
The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) 7: The Creed, Article VII: Importance of Instruction on this Article
These are thoughts which the pastor should very often bring to the attention of his people; for the truth which is contained in this Article will, if accepted with faithful dispositions, be most powerful in bridling the evil inclinations of the heart and in withdrawing men from sin. Hence we read in Ecclesiasticus: “In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.” And indeed there is scarcely anyone so given over to vice as not to be recalled to virtue by the thought that he must one day render an account before an all-just Judge, not only of all his words and actions, but even of his most secret thoughts, and must suffer punishment according to his deserts.
(15) Question: Is it practical to “reasonably hope” and have “lively and realistic hope” that all or most people will be saved? Is it possible that such “hope” could significantly increase the risk of sloth, lack of zeal, and lack of vigilance, in staying out of mortal sin?
(16) Question: While not being able to answer “Is there anyone in this state of being [hell],” can we regard as valid the teachings below, which suggest that the path to heaven is indeed frighteningly narrow:
St. Augustine 12
Yet doubtless there are but few who are saved.
St. Anselm 4
If thou wouldst be certain of being in the number of the elect, strive to be one of the few, not of the many.
St. Justin the Martyr 13
The majority of men will not [see God], saving such as shall live justly, purified by righteousness, and by every other virtue.
St. John of the Cross 14
“How narrow is the gate and constricting the way that leads to life! And few there are who find it.” [Matthew 7:14]…This is like saying: Indeed the gate is very narrow, more so than you think.
St. Louis Marie de Montfort 15
Be one of the small number who find the way to life, and enter by the narrow gate into Heaven. Take care not to follow the majority and the common herd, so many of whom are lost.
St. Leonard of Port Maurice 6
[Christ] does not say that all are called and that out of all men, few are chosen, but that many are called; which means, as Saint Gregory explains, that out of all men, many are called to the True Faith, but out of them few are saved…
The following narrative from Saint Vincent Ferrer will show you what you may think about it. He relates that an archdeacon in Lyons gave up his charge and retreated into a desert place to do penance, and that he died the same day and hour as Saint Bernard. After his death, he appeared to his bishop and said to him, "Know, Monsignor, that at the very hour I passed away, thirty-three thousand people also died. Out of this number, Bernard and myself went up to heaven without delay, three went to purgatory, and all the others fell into Hell”…
That is why Saint Thomas, the Angelic Doctor, after weighing all the reasons pro and con in his immense erudition, finally concludes that the greater number of Catholic adults are damned. He says, "Because eternal beatitude surpasses the natural state, especially since it has been deprived of original grace, it is the little number that are saved”…
So then, remove the blindfold from your eyes that is blinding you with self-love, that is keeping you from believing such an obvious truth by giving you very false ideas concerning the justice of God, "Just Father, the world has not known Thee," said Our Lord Jesus Christ. He does not say "Almighty Father, most good and merciful Father." He says "just Father," so we may understand that out of all the attributes of God, none is less known than His justice, because men refuse to believe what they are afraid to undergo.
1. Lex Fridman Podcast, “#304 – Bishop Robert Barron: Christianity and the Catholic Church,” July 20, 2022, [Online Available from: https://lexfridman.com/robert-barron/]
2. Dan Millette, One Peter Five, “Bishop Barron, Taylor Marshall, and a Stonewalling on Hell,” October 1, 2019, [Online Available from: https://onepeterfive.com/barron-marshall-hell/]
3. The Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims Version, 2009, Saint Benedict Press [Original published 1582-1609]
4. Father Martin Von Cochem, The Four Last Things- Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven, 1899, [Online] Available from: http://catholictradition.org/Classics/4last-things4d.htm, Benziger Brothers [Original 1070-1109]
5. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1995, Doubleday
6. St. Leonard of Port Maurice, [Online] Available from: https://sensusfidelium.us/meditations/st-leonard-of-port-maurice/the-little-number-of-those-who-are-saved/] [Original 1751]
7. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, (J.A McHugh, O.P., and C.J. Callan, Trans.), 1923, Middletown, DE [Original 1566]
8. Council of Trent, 14th Session, “On the Most Holy Sacrament of Penance,” Canon 7; Denzinger 917. (Cited at https://ronconte.com/2012/03/08/confession-in-kind-and-number/)
9. Canon law: https://www.vatican.va/archive/cod-iuris-canonici/eng/documents/cic_lib4-cann959-997_en.html (Cited at https://ronconte.com/2012/03/08/confession-in-kind-and-number/)
10.Bishop Robert Barron, Word on Fire, “Is Hell Crowded or Empty? A Catholic Perspective,” March 30, 2011, [Online Available from: https://www.wordonfire.org/articles/barron/is-hell-crowded-or-empty-a-catholic-perspective/]
11. John Hirschauer, American Conservative, “Bishop Barron and the Postconciliar Church,” Aug 24, 2022 [Online Available from: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/bishop-barron-and-the-postconciliar-church/]
12. St. Augustine, “Sermon 61”, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Volume 6, (Philip Schaff, Ed.), 1994, [Online] Available from: https://ccel.org/ccel/s/schaff/npnf106/cache/npnf106.pdf, Christian Classics Ethereal Library [Original 391-426 A.D.]
13. St. Justin the Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1., (Dods and George Reith, Marcus Trans.) (Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, Ed.), [Online] Available from: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html, Christian Literature Publishing [Original 155-160 A.D.]
14. St. John of the Cross, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, (Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriquez, Trans.), 1991, p. 169, ICS Publications [Original 1578-1579]
15. St. Louis Marie de Montfort, The Love of Eternal Wisdom, (A. Sommers, Trans.), 1960, SMM, Montfort Publications [Original 1703-1704]