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Angela Tilby: Tusk makes sense of Brexit hell

15 February 2019


Donald Tusk

Donald Tusk

I CONFESS to a frisson of delight at Donald Tusk’s remark about the special place reserved in hell for the extreme Brexiteers. It was a moment for unrepentant Remainers like me to thump the table and shout “Yes!” in the Brexit chaos. Tusk condemned the Brexiteers for their refusal to come up with a realistic plan, a failure that has divided the country and prevented constructive dialogue with the European Union.

Predictably, Jacob Rees-Mogg sniffed Mr Tusk’s criticism away, claiming, with some condescension, that Tusk was not as good a theologian as Thomas Aquinas. But he was wrong. Tusk understands the theological resonances of Aquinas’s teaching on hell quite accurately. Aquinas taught that those who end up in hell are those who have ultimately failed in charity for God and for their neighbours. In failing to produce a rational or coherent exit plan, the extreme Brexiteers have failed the charity test.

It need not have been so. In spite of my own conviction, I can just about acknowledge that one might support Brexit out of love for God and neighbour. It is possible to argue that the EU is corrupt beyond redemption, that it sows global disharmony (it annoys President Trump and Russia), besides harming its poorer members (Greece, Italy?).

But, even if a case along such lines can be made, extracting ourselves from an EU we freely and knowingly entered should require a more reasoned argument than the shouty rhetoric we have had from the pro-Brexit faction. It should have been possible for a sober economic and moral case to have been made with a plan for a coherent withdrawal and a road map to an appropriate post-Brexit relationship with the EU. None of this has happened. Carry on Brexit has its familiar cast of comic characters but no script.

Tusk knows his theology. Hell is the place where human beings reap the consequences of their decisions to reject what makes for their ultimate good. Our ultimate good is the vision of God who is perfect charity and perfect wisdom. There is no charity in hell and no reason either. It is a condition of total incoherence. Satan, ultimately, divides against himself. It is this incoherence, born of a lack of charity, which in Mr Tusk’s view, constitutes the error of the most negative Brexiteers.

Yet, as Dante suggested, hell has layers. Although the vision of God is no longer attainable, some torments are worse than others. God continues to love those who reject him, and the agonies of hell may be mitigated by any seeds of virtue which remain in us. On this basis, some theologians have argued, controversially, that hell may not be final. Mr Tusk’s speculation about a “special” place reserved in hell leaves this question open.

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