When one teaches the Inferno, one has a choice: to teach it as one of the greatest literary work of the Western canon and to comment on it as if one were commenting on an insect preserved in aspic, talking only about the beauty of the poetry, the sweep of history, the relationship to Classical literature, etc, etc. Or, while teaching all of the above, one points out Dante’s deep Catholic understanding of the essence of things: the natural law that is given by God, the presence and meaning of the Catholic Church in everyday life and in history, the terrible reality of sin and its consequences, the awe-ful justice of God, but also the harrowing of Hell and the reality of redemption in Jesus Christ and the mercy of purgatory and joy of heaven: all this, all this, but yet and also the reality of the horror of Hell that is the place forever of those who have rejected in an absolute way the offer of the mercy of God in the redemption made real by the Cross of Jesus Christ. The Divine Comedy, the journey to God, is the essence of the drama of what it means to be a man, a human being. It is not the base existential allure of Waiting for Godot. It is not the insane but plausible Superman of Nietzsche. It is not the debased sentimentality of contemporary belief that all is permissible as long as it hurts no one else. It is not the Catholicism that is reduced to the mawkish strains of “Let there be peace on earth” and “Eagles’ wings” against which the gates of Hell are more than a match.
We have heard so much in the past year about the mercy of God, as if the mercy of God does not depend on the justice of God. Without justice there is no mercy. The mission of the Church is not primarily to proclaim the mercy of God. The mission of the Church is to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The mercy of God is surely seen and exemplified once and for all in the Cross of Jesus Christ. There is no greater symbol of God’s mercy and love. Those silly “resurrected Christs” that are placed on a cross over an altar in some Catholic churches are a product of sentimentality and denial of the justice of God. And yet when one looks at the Cross one sees there the terrible, horrible, judgment of God on this world of sin, that God would have to have his Son die in this way: what does that say about this world, about you and me? The obvious answer is quite negative. But you see, the deepest answer to that question is Love, there is the answer. But not the cheap love the world would have us believe in, love defined as what I want to do, love defined apart from the laws of God, love defined so as to upturn reality into perversity, a false love that is doomed to hell, as Dante saw, as Christ told us, as St Paul wrote, that is doomed to death, for it is the opposite of Love.
The gospel today speaks clearly of the second coming of Christ, a time of judgment, a time when the justice of God will be revealed and will be exacted. This will be a time, yes, a time of mercy on those sinners who have repented and who have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. And those will hear those words: “Come ye blessed of my Father…” But this will also be a time of justice, when the wicked who have not repented, who have reveled in their sinfulness, who have spit at the law of God, will receive their reward.
And it will probably much worse than anything Dante could have imagined.