"I hope they're in hell," sneered a good friend concerning two persons perceived to have done him great ill. The two individuals he eagerly hopes to be damned are Richard Nixon and Maggie Thatcher. Why? Their great sin: caving to China in foreign policy. Nixon's greatest mistake was not Watergate—an overblown, minor scandal—but recognizing the communist state and giving it trade preference over Formosa, now Taiwan. With no American political power behind lingering British interests, Margaret Thatcher had to let Hong Kong go. The "lease" the British held on Hong Kong was an elaborate, well considered way to save face by a formidable politician in the Iron Lady.
Why do they deserve the eternal flames? My friend thinks these two sold out whatever remaining familial legacy he had in China. He is heir to a million dollar fortune which would have been a billion dollar fortune if not for the Communists. Yes, it was blood money made from cooperating with the Victorian Empire in the mining business, but it should be his blood money you see. This fellow, on the whole a moral and upright person, has suffered the indelible effects of a family destroyed: many died during the Maoist purges, others escaped with scares and no care for others, a lost legacy and fortune, and faded hopes of recovering it; then those survivors gave birth to my friend. Nixon and Thatcher may have injured my acquaintance in the most minute and indirect way possible, but would even open effrontery be worthy of damnation?
Modern society has lost any sense of justice and replaced it with emotions: my neighbor deserves to go to hell because he throws trash over the fence, but letting a mother vacuum her baby's crushed skull out of her womb is compassion. Punishment must accompany every crime and it must be condign to the crime. In the middle ages or Roman times public drunkenness was not punished with decapitation no matter how stupid the inebriated party was. The Church understood the death penalty as morally permissible until John Paul II, who somehow found it both orthodox and inapplicable. The reason follows the same logic as penance for sins: the guilty, even if sorry and contrite, must make a reasonable reparation for his crime. In the cases of murder and treason death was the most society could demand, hence Innocent III's teaching that such executions must be carried out with deliberation and not anger. Society gives, or gave, similarly reasonable punishments for lesser offences. It was given to Mankind the power to execute what the Scholastics called "Natural Law" and what I would call common sense. Mankind can also do this because Man cannot be infinitely offended. Only God can be. Consigning others to the pyrotechnic pit is not only "judgmental" in the pietistic interpretation of the words of Christ, but it also usurps God's authority to judge His people, as His laws are the ones transgressed and He is the one offended, not us.
Mankind cannot be infinitely offended, save the politically correct (God help you if you make a race joke in America or a class joke in England). Man can interpret God's law. The old Roman rite of episcopal consecration listed that as one of the bishop's duties. Similarly, the bishop had the power to declare a person excommunicated yet did not have the power to "excommunicate" in the Western understanding of the word. Strictly speaking, excommunication is the placing of someone outside the Sacraments. The Latin Church's understanding of the State of Grace presumes that one who cannot communicate is necessarily in mortal sin and hence on the hot path. An act of excommunication is made by the sinner then, not something imposed by the bishop. The Greek churches excommunicate(d) people as a punishment and as a medicine. The Latin Church did not excommunicate people per se, it merely nodded to an excommunication already in effect. The old Bell, Book, and Candle ceremony popularized by the movie Becket contained the phrase "we declare [Name] excommunicate and anathema" not "we excommunicate and anathematize [Name]." Similar language was attempted against Msgr. Lefebvre in 1988.
God will judge the excommunicate and every other kind of sinner. We cannot damn anyone or even presume that a person is damned, although I think we can be forgiven for being pessimistic about some. To presume, or hope for, or declare the loss of a soul is to be infinitely offended and to jump into the seat of God Who gave the law to Moses and Who brought "grace and truth through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). People bother us in our lives. A simple Lenten challenge is to teach ourselves to be ourselves and to let God continue to be God. He is much more qualified for the job anyway.