Nearly twenty years ago I read the apocalyptic novel Father Elijah by Michael O’Brien. The story recounts a confrontation between the hero, a Carmelite friar named Elijah, and the villain, a president who the pope thinks may be the Antichrist. The pope dispatches Father Elijah to try to avert the apocalypse by converting this evil man.
As the story winds to a close, Father Elijah goes to the president’s island stronghold for a final attempt to convert him. This ends in an exorcism that leaves the president unconscious on the carpet. Suddenly, an angel—in the form of a child who had helped Father Elijah earlier—appears:
Elijah started, for he saw a pair of bare legs standing beside the body.
“Rafael,” he gasped, “what are you doing in here? You shouldn’t be here!”
The child looked down at the figure on the floor with an expression of profound pity.
“He will awake in a few minutes,” the boy said. “Then he must choose.”
Which brings me to the recent death of Hugh Hefner.
Reaction to it was mixed. Some of the women Hefner brought to the public spotlight remembered him with fondness. Other women looked back with deep regret. On the political left, there was praise from some for Hefner’s promotion of civil rights; some on the libertarian right approved of his enterprising spirit and alleged promotion of sexual complementarity. On both the left and right there were denunciations of Hefner’s legacy of misogyny and the commercialization of women as sexual objects. And, as tends to happen when an infamous person dies, Catholics wondered whether he went to hell.
It was Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s blog post asking this question that reminded me of the scene from Father Elijah. Fr. Longenecker gave some background on Hefner’s life:
I once read an interview with Hugh Hefner in which his sophisticated façade dropped for a moment and he revealed that he was a lonely child with a distant, unaffectionate mother. If I remember the interview correctly, he had a stuffed bunny to keep him company. So, go figure. Analyze that one.
Maybe those who would condemn Hugh Hefner can see beneath the celebrity fornicator a lonely little boy looking for love. Maybe when he came face to face with the source of Love, he said, “Yes, this is what I have been looking for all my life. . . .”
Or, perhaps, as did the villain in Father Elijah, Hefner chose to remain on his path away from God. Deathbed conversions are a rare phenomenon because human beings don’t often make radical, soul-shaping changes at the very last minute of their lives (which Fr. Longenecker also acknowledges in his essay).
Unlike angels, who made a definitive, irrevocable choice to choose God or to oppose him (CCC 392–393), humans make a series of choices throughout their lifetimes that are, in a sense, “sealed” at the moment of their death. God can grant a human person a final opportunity to reject his entire life course and to choose divine goodness, but even then a person remains free to reject this final grace.
We cannot alter his fate, but we can make our own choice: how to regard men like Hugh Hefner.
When considering the life and legacy of a notorious man (or woman), the temptation is to indulge our natural inclination toward scorn or revulsion or anger or hatred. In Hefner’s case, it’s easy to do this—and not without justice, given how many lives he helped ruin over six decades in his quest to glamorize pornography and sexual hedonism.
How much harder, though, is it to look at the wreckage of a person’s life, to look at all the wreckage of others’ lives for which he is at least partly responsible, and to feel sorrow for him? Sometimes it helps to look at his life story from a different angle.
Though born to Christian parents he described as “conservative, Midwestern, and Methodist,” as an adult Hefner did not practice any faith. His first marriage was a disaster—his wife admitted to cheating on him when he was serving with the military, which he said later was “the most devastating moment of my life.” His wife thought she could make things right by allowing Hefner to have affairs of his own, but the marriage soon crumbled.
He did not marry again for another thirty years, but he claimed to have had sex with more than a thousand women and to have experimented with homosexual relationships. Toward the end of his life, some of the women who lived in the Playboy Mansion gave accounts of their time there, including pathetic details such as having to ask Hefner personally for their “allowance” and then being required to wait while he “picked the dog poo off the carpet” before handing them the cash.
A man with every material advantage life had to offer, he spent the bulk of his life engaged in such extreme sexual perversity that many people’s minds would reel at the thought. At the end of his life he was just an elderly man who had to hire his companions and clean up the animal waste in his own room.
Hugh Hefner, a man created in the image and likeness of God, was destined by God for eternal glory. Rather than simply reviling him for the evils he committed, perhaps we may also mourn the man he became and hope that he somehow chose to make peace with God. Looking with mercy upon a man like Hefner does not contradict the justice owed him for his sins but goes hand in hand with that justice. St. Thomas Aquinas likened mercy to a gift:
God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against his justice, but by doing something more than justice; thus a man who pays another two hundred pieces of money, though owing him only one hundred, does nothing against justice, but acts liberally or mercifully. The case is the same with one who pardons an offense committed against him, for in remitting it he may be said to bestow a gift. Hence the Apostle [Paul] calls remission a forgiving: “Forgive one another, as Christ has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).
The villain in Father Elijah was granted a final chance to amend his life, and perhaps we might see in the circumstances of Hugh Hefner’s death the chance that a final grace was offered to him as well; for he died on the feast of a man known for Christian charity, for escaping slavery, and for promotion of the welfare of women.
St. Vincent de Paul, please pray for Hugh Hefner.
(Photo by Alan Light)