Hell and Pope Francis

A recent report claims that Pope Francis denied the existence of hell (here). Given that the Catholic Church has a great deal invested in Hell, this report created a good deal of consternation, and the Vatican issued a semi-denial, saying that the reporter did not produce a “faithful transcription.” I belatedly learned that Vox has an excellent article on this subject that complements what I will say below (here).

It turns out that Pope Francis is on surprisingly good terms with Eugenio Scalfari, a 93 year old reporter who is also an atheist. The pope not only speaks to him on the phone regularly, he has met with him in private at least five times. After a recent private meeting, Scalfari wrote that Pope Francis told him “the souls of those who are unrepentant, and thus cannot be forgiven, disappear. Hell does not exist, the disappearance of sinful souls exists.”

This is actually closer to Jesus’ position than the Church’s standard account of Hell. But the Church has invested a great deal in the eternal flames of Hell, and produced numerous revelations about the unprecedented heat and pain they generate. People were irate at Pope Francis’ reported dismissal of Hell.

The Vatican went into damage control, denying the report was a “faithful transcription.” The 93 year old reporter has not updated his methods to include the use of compact digital recorders. He still takes notes manually, and does so after the interview, rather than during it, which might be disruptive. This was standard journalistic procedure for many years. While it may not result in a “faithful transcription,” it works pretty well. The Vatican did not deny the substance of Salfari’s report, and their attempt at damage control failed.

Having failed, they brought in John Allen, long time Vatican correspondent and author of The Francis Miracle, to do a hatchet job on Salfari. Allen (here) accused Salfari of (falsely) “creating the impression of quoting the pope verbatim and at length.” Allen said Salfari’s report was “border-line surreal,” and “there’s basically zero plausibility that Francis actually said what Scalfari cites him as saying on Hell.” Allen based his attack on the fact that Pope Francis had previously talked about Hell, and would not contradict himself.

But Pope Francis has contradicted himself in the past. He is no theologian, and his theological pronouncements have produced similar problems. That is why a group of cardinals publicly questioned the Joy of Love, Pope Francis’ major theological work. Pope Francis and the Vatican have failed to respond to those questions, much as they failed to deny the report of his denial of Hell. Other examples of his theological gaffes are Pope Francis Accused of Heresy and Pope Francis Screws Up Again.

Mr. Allen tried to clean up the Vatican’s mess: “Why … didn’t the Vatican issue a stronger denial?.... the Vatican probably doesn’t want the embarrassing spectacle of being forced to release a statement along the lines of, ‘Just to confirm, the pope believes in Hell.’” But a denial would have been far less embarrassing than their actual attempt at damage control.

Then Allen really starts slinging mud. First, he claims that a cardinal told him that Pope Francis previously said, “You know, by now he [Scalfari] is quite old … we have to be gentle with him.” He’s senile!!! Allen also claimed that a former Vatican spokesman spoke disdainfully of “the way Scalfari writes” and his unreliability. Allen claims that Pope Francis is just being charitable about the bad reporting: “Francis is less concerned about precision in such a situation than with dialogue, and he appears to believe that even if he may be misrepresented or misquoted…. Francis’s model for dialogue generally - friendship first, clarity later.” Of course neither the pope nor the Vatican followed up on the “clarity later” part – neither here nor with the objections to his Joy of Love.

Allen concludes: “The next time you hear about a bombshell papal interview, do a keyword search for the name “Scalfari.” If it pops up, you’ll know the story won’t be over until we get the Vatican’s next kid-gloves attempt to deny the story, without denying the man behind it.” In other words, John Allen would have us believe that Pope Francis has repeated phone calls and repeated private meetings with a man he believes to be utterly untrustworthy. How many private meetings has Pope Francis had with John Allen?


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