Saturday, April 21, 2007

Virginia Tech: On Praying for the Dead

(Borrowed from MEMRI)

The blog for the Middle East Media Research Institute (i.e., MEMRI Blog) notes a minor detail concerning the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre:
The liberal Arabic-language website Aafaq reports [, April 17, 2007] that a Muslim student set off a debate when she sent an email to the mailing list of a Muslim students' association (rabitat al-tullab al-muslimin) at Virginia Tech asking the students to pray that Allah have mercy on those killed and wounded in the shooting attack at the university.

According to Aafaq, the dean of student affairs at American International University, Abu Hamza Hijji, responded, writing that Allah the Most Merciful forbids praying for mercy for the non-Muslim dead, or even for the non-Muslim living, and that it is only permitted to pray that they be rightly guided. He added that what happened was a sad occurrence, but that does not give Muslims the right to transgress the laws of Allah the Most Merciful....

Hijji . . . [said] that there is no problem with praying that non-Muslims be kept safe and not be killed, if there is hope that they might be guided [to the right path]; but one cannot pray for the non-Muslim dead, since there is no chance of their being guided.
Although Hijji himself noted that this might seem "hard-hearted," he insisted that this is "God's message to guide others to the truth." At such a time, this does seem hardhearted, but in the interest of fairness, I think that we ought to point out that most American Protestants would also not pray for the souls of those who have already died. In general, Protestants believe that death ends all opportunity of any guidance for the unsaved.

On the other hand, Protestants would have no qualms about praying for the living, whether Christian or not. Nor would Catholics have a problem with such prayers.

But does anyone (hint: Kate Marie) know the Catholic position on prayers for the dead? I recall that those in Purgatory can be prayed for, but can Catholics pray for the dead who are not in Purgatory? I presume that there's no need to pray for the dead who are in Heaven, but what of the dead in unpleasant places other than Purgatory -- e.g., Limbo, Erebus, various Dantean circles of Hell -- can prayers improve their condition?

Hijji wrote that the relative importance of brotherhood in humanity or religion needs to be evaluated according to Allah's laws, and not according to human reason.
By contrast, I'm reminded -- perhaps unfairly so -- of the remarks by Pope Benedict XVI on the important role that, based on the real analogy between God and human being, reason should have in religion and on the difficulty that, for Islam, God's "will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality."

But a dehellenized Protestantism, as the Pope also noted, suffers from a similar problem...



At 6:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! I had no idea Muslims thought the People of the Book were damned. Does that mean that only Muslims can enter Heaven, according to Islamic doctrine?

I saw on the news today that Limbo is officially abolished from Roman Catholic doctrine. I was raised in a Catholic home and attended a Catholic elementary school followed by six years of CCD but no longer believe in Catholicism. A couple of years ago, I got tangled up in a debate on Catholic doctrine on blog and checked out the Catecism of the Catholic Church (I think that's what the official book on doctrine put out by Rome is called). Catholic doctrine has softened considerably since I was a kid. Official Catholic doctrine no longer explicitly condemns to Hell those who die without expressing faith in Jesus through baptism. In fact, as I recall, the book states that Catholics hope and believe in God's mercy towards those who have never had a chance to believe and be baptized - namely, babies and people who've not heard the Gospel.

Forgiveness and redemption are at the very heart of the Christian faith but not Islam. This is not a slam against Islam but a distinction between the origins and establishment of the two religions and their core beliefs and practices. I cannot imagine any mainstream Protestant or Catholic religious person telling followers that prayers of mercy for non-Christian dead are useless.

At 7:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"According to Aafaq, the dean of student affairs at American International University, Abu Hamza Hijji, responded, writing that Allah the Most Merciful forbids praying for mercy for the non-Muslim dead, or even for the non-Muslim living,"

BTW, did you deliberately craft that bit of ironic language?

At 8:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, I'm not certain that Protestants do pray for the dead. I know that most Evangelicals would not do so, for they believe that the time for repentance is past. Now, high Anglicans and Lutherans might pray for the dead, but Calvinists wouldn't.

Of course, liberal Christians of various persuasions might pray for the dead.

On your query about crafting the quote ... no, I merely quoted it. I did make a mental note on the irony of this mercilessness of the most merciful, but I often make that mental note anyway, which is to say that I don't make much of it anymore.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:03 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Ah, Jeffery, I wish I were as knowledgeable a Catholic as you give me credit for. I only know enough about Catholicism to know how much I don't know (well, I'll admit to being able to give a roughly accurate definition of the Immaculate Conception, which many non-Catholics seem to be a bit confused about).

Catholics do indeed pray for the dead. Praying for all the souls in purgatory is most common, perhaps, but as far as I know, there's no doctrine which expressly forbids praying for those who are presumed to be in less pleasant places, especially since we can't presume to know exactly where they are.

I was interested in Sonagi's comments on limbo, since it was only within the last few years that I discovered that limbo was still "alive" as part of the official teaching of the church. I'm kind of glad to see it go...

The thought of being able to improve the lot of the damned is a really interesting one for me, but as far as I know there's no Catholic teaching which suggests that would ever be possible. Maybe I just find it aesthetically interesting -- that's one of the reasons I love Satan's Mount Niphates speech, probably, though I realize Milton's theology would utterly reject that Satan could repent.

And that reminds me that I *still* have to read your paper about Satan and the possibility of redemption.

I've rambled enough for one comment. Forgive me. Better yet, pray for me.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, KM, all those prayers for the dead must have depopulated limbo...

Where are those dead souls now?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kate wrote:

"The thought of being able to improve the lot of the damned is a really interesting one for me, but as far as I know there's no Catholic teaching which suggests that would ever be possible. "

Unlike Purgatory, damnation in Hell is eternal and irreversible, so Catholics cannot bail somebody out with prayers. Limbo used to be eternal, too, but that's no longer an option. Other Christians may criticize the Catholic Church for creating Limbo and other unbiblical concepts, but I believe such criticism is a bit unfair. Limbo was the Catholic Church's answer to the merciless of condemning to Hell the innocent who had no chance to choose salvation. When the Catecism of the Catholic Church talks about God's mercy towards the unbaptized dead, it is merely expressing a hope, not calling for prayers, although it likely wouldn't forbid such prayers like the Iman had done.

Jeffery wrote:

"Well, KM, all those prayers for the dead must have depopulated limbo...

Where are those dead souls now?"

Cute joke, but as I mentioned, Limbo was eternal like Hell. The difference was the Limbo was a pleasant place, save for the absence of God. I didn't bother to read the news stories about the abolition of Limbo to see what the rationale was. I think I'll google right now.

Well, this is interesting:

And this, too:

It seems that Limbo was never formal doctrine but a hypothesis. It is also somewhat unclear who besides unbaptized babies went to Limbo. It appears from the stories that the Catholic Church has now decreed that unbaptized infants go to Heaven, but the Church is silent on the fate of those who lived and died before Christ and those who have not heard the Gospel.

At 10:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, my impression -- from my study of Medieval literature -- is that Christ's Harrowing of Hell released those pre-Christian individuals who had entered Hell but to whom grace was extended for some reason or other.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:09 PM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

A few years ago, a (Protestant) friend called in tears to tell us about a friend's infant daughter who died under tragic circumstances. I immediately replied that I would pray for the baby. She paused, then, with puzzlement clearly in her voice, said, "Didn't you understand? She is dead."

Sigh. I had to explain that we (Catholics) pray for God's mercy on the souls of the dead AND that I would also pray for the girl's parents and my friends.

Re praying for those already in heaven or hell, it was my understanding that we cannot know where anyone ended up, so we should presume our prayers are needed and wanted. As a kid, I wondered if my prayers were "wasted." Now I just hope that any "wasted" ones get used by someone else. Kind of like "cap and trade."

At 4:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, I rather like the Catholic generosity of spirit on this. Protestants seem to fall somewhere between Catholicism and Islam on this one, hopefully a bit closer to Catholicism, but I know of some rather harsh denominations out there...

"Cap and Trade"?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:28 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Cap and trade as in, if you've reached your quota of prayers needed to move to heaven (or are in the other place, and can't use them), you could trade the "extra" prayers with souls who still need them. Maybe for a share of their future heavenly rewards or something. :-)

At 10:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Christ's Harrowing of Hell "

Gotta look that one up. I swallowed so much doctrine in five years of Catholic school and six more years of CCD that it's hard to remember everything.

This is all mental exercies for me anyway since I don't believe in any sort of afterlife. I envy those who do because the prospect of going to Heaven makes death much less scary. My maternal grandmother lived to be 95; mostly bedridden the last year of her life, she prayed for God to take her. My grandfather, on the other hand, told my mom shortly before he died at the age of 94 that he was afraid to go to sleep sometimes because he feared he might not wake up. If you really believe in Heaven, then you should not be afraid of death. Some doubt is natural for believers, I suppose.

At 2:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Cap and trade, harrowing of hell ... a friend of mine used to say that his connections would get him into heaven. A saintly grandmother, if I recall.

CIV or Sonagi, let's make a deal that if one of us gets in, she or he will drag the other two of us along.

Just kidding ... sort of...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is the first time I visited your blog, after reading your greeting to Hathor.

I am not a practising Catholic, but not quite a apostate either. During fifteen years of Catholic education, I witnessed a lessening of the exclusivity that characterized the ways "heathen" or "unbaptized" souls were regarded. Until the indelible mark of original sin could be eradicated by baptism, heaven was definitely off-limits to those poor unfortunates, such as babies who died at birth, reverent Jews and compassionate Buddhists who took up residence in limbo.

This rigorous adherence to the requirement of baptism may no longer apply to infants, but it still is the official party line, so to speak. When Pierre Teihard de Chardin posited that human consciousness was also in the process of evolution, i.e., the noosphere, he was silenced by the Church since this theory undermined the dogma of original sin.

That's the offical stance. Even lapsed Catholics that I know will pray for the dead, and as Kate Marie said, we have no way of know where the dead may be, since sincere contrition at the moment of death could absolve the lifelong sinner.

Some Christian theologians believe that since God is Love, and Love seeks union not separation, the idea of God banishing souls to everlasting torment is absurd. Eventually all souls would be reunited with God because they originated with God. Perhaps the noosphere is the right idea after all.

I apologize for the overly long comment, but perhaps your patience in reading it will be rewarded with a reduction of your confinement in purgatory. (smiles)

At 12:35 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

One of my friends attends church with George G., Ritchie, author of Ordered to Return: My Life After Dying. After hearing his experiences, she gave me a copy of this book.

Dr. Ritchie describes seeing various "levels" (I forget the term he used) in the afterlife. There's hell and heaven, of course, but three more in between. One is a place where scholars and such continue their work. They are not in the Perfect Love, but they are not unhappy, either. If the good doctor is correct, there is hope for the Gypsy Scholar & friends, even if they don't make it to the very top level. Not being much of a scholar, I'll have to work for one of the other levels as my "safe" level.

BTW, the book was good at the beginning, but then Ritchie goes off on some odd personal rants that should have been edited out.

At 5:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kochanie, thanks for the comment -- though my name should be "Jeffery," so that's extra time in purgatory for you.

On unbaptized infants and other such pagans going to heaven, I'd guess that the Catholic Church isn't weakening the doctrine of original sin but expanding on the manner in which grace is extended to sinners.

But perhaps somebody could inform us more officially. Where's the Pope these days? He used to visit my blog...

As for universal salvation, I always reflect upon Karl Barth's wise words:

"Anyone who does not believe in the universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass."

But perhaps even that wise statement by Barth constitutes an asinine teaching...

(The Barth quote is borrowed from Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, vol. 1 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2000), 214; h/t Feminary)

Finding that quote took a bit of web searching, so my time in purgatory should be reduced a bit, unless websurfing constitutes an occasion for sin ...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, that place of scholars sounds a bit like the Limbo described by Dante as the first circle of Hell. It's a place of happiness for the virtuous pagans who continue their intellectual speculations but never attain the beatific vision.

Perhaps Dr. Ritchie had read some Dante in high school before his 'death'?

Jeffery Hodges

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