Pope Francis and Fred Phelps

Pope Francis holding a Monstrance at Eucharistic Adoration

One of these days, I’ll get around to updating my banner

This week, “Who am I to judge” was back in the headlines as Pope Francis gave a homily on Luke 6:36-38:

“Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.

More recently, however, His Holiness showed another example of what he does *not* mean when he warned the Mafia that they’re in danger of Hell.
Meanwhile, in an example of what “judge not lest ye be judged” most definitely *does* mean, poor Fred Phelps, Sr.. Phelps’s story is a tragic example of the path of heresy: starting out with zeal for the Lord but losing the love he had at first (Rev 2:4). He started as a reknowned civil rights activist known for participation in the _Brown v. Board of Education_ case and moved on to peace activism but somehow, while apparently retaining those positions became known for a strong “anti-gay” polemic (that is to say, “anti-homosexual,” rather than “anti-homosexuality”). His “congregation” Westboro Baptist became known for protesting various funerals, ranging from soldiers (see anti-war, above) to prominent homosexuals to children, with their notorious “God hates [sinners]” signs.

It was hard to find a pic that did not feature one of his repulsive signs.

So, what of Fred Phelps?

Objectively speaking:

1. He promoted hate, making a career (both as a disbarred lawyer and as a “minister” without any ties to any “denomination” or “hierarchy”) out of attacking various individual and social evils with straight-on hate rather than authentic zeal or love. He “lived by the sword” and by “judging others,” to the extent that his own family will not have a funeral for him because they don’t “worship [or pray for] the dead.” Again, most certainly if someone lived the opposite of “judge not, lest ye be judged,” it was Fred Phelps.
2. He was anti-Catholic, attacked the Church Jesus founded, and presumably, as someone who claimed to know the Bible, read and ignored John 20:23 and James 5:16 (“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.”) How can one who is Baptized and claims to know the Bible be forgiven of mortal sin without the Sacrament of Reconciliation? He not only preached that pretty much everyone was damned to Hell but also helped keep people away from that powerful Sacrament, and he discouraged praying for the poor souls in Purgatory.
3. Oddly united just about everyone in hating him back or pitying him. From atheist and “gay rights” leaders to conservative Christians, many people outside his own congregation have called for treating his death with compassion and forgiveness, while others are calling for counter protests like, “God hates Fred.” Already, cartoons and memes are appearing joking about him potentially being in Hell.

Certainly, if there’s anyone we can say with certainty is in Hell, it’s Fred Phelps, right?

Wrong.

We can’t do that.

I always imagine personal judgement as the personal encounter described by St. Teresa of Avila and by St. Faustina, Jesus coming to the person and the person reacting either with love or with fear and loathing–or perhaps C. S. Lewis’s version where the person is greeted by the person they would least want to see in Heaven who is there (_The Great Divorce_ is a must-read).

I look at the life of Fred Phelps and wonder how it’s possible, objectively *or* subjectively, for him to face personal judgement and embrace the love and forgiveness of Christ? I imagine rather the response of Javert, the response of Judas after the Last Supper in the 1973 _Jesus Christ Superstar_ movie, where Jesus tries to give him a blanket, even after he has publicly denounced Jesus and left the company of Apostles, and Judas recoils.


Nevertheless, I also have to hope that his reaction is different. I have to hope that he repented even in those split seconds of death and was snatched from the Devil’s grasp, because otherwise, what hope to I have? What hope do any of us have? Fred Phelps may have been greeted by the souls of every saved person whose funeral he picketed, and how did he react? What if he reacted by asking forgiveness?

So what if, when you or I have our time, we find ourselves face-to-face with Jesus–and with Fred Phelps, or Adolf Hitler, or Judas Iscariot? Someone we were absolutely convinced was beyond asking God’s forgiveness yet wasn’t? How would we react? Would we ask, “How could You forgive *HIM* and not me??”

One final point: if he did repent of his mortal sins, he definitely had a lot of Purgatory in store to clear away his attachments.  Pray for him, since by his own doing he has taught his family and friends not to.

For further reading, an older post I often link at times like this:
“Absalom and the Prodigal Son”

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