By now, the news — such as it is — has made the rounds: Pope Francis is reported to have denied the existence of hell. Eugenio Scalfari, the founder and long-serving (now former) editor of Italy’s leading left-leaning daily, La Repubblica, wrote a piece offering his account of a conversation with Pope Francis, in which he quotes the Holy Father as espousing annihilationism. Maintaining as it does that the souls of unrepentant sinners simply cease to exist at particular judgment, that doctrine is flatly heretical.
The Press Office of the Holy See was quick to issue a statement denying the Pope actually spoke the words attributed to him, but the statement was not quick enough to stop the headlines, and its anemic wording could only do so much to slow their march. The English page of the official Vatican News website rendered the statement as follows:
The Holy Father recently received the founder of the newspaper La Repubblica in a private meeting on the occasion of Easter, without, however, granting him an interview. What is reported by the author in today’s article is the fruit of his reconstruction, in which the precise words uttered by the Pope are not cited. No quotations in the aforementioned article, then, should be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.
The telephone games have all been played. Doctrinally challenged priests subscribing to annihilationism have with their culturally Mormon (not to say “Mottramist”) brethren of the cloth told truth-starved flocks there is no eternal damnation awaiting the unrepentant, while universalist heretics have flipped the coin and proclaimed everyone saved. Responsible pastors, meanwhile, have reminded the faithful in their charge that there is a hell and it is possible to go there. Courageous and enterprising laity have seized the occasion as a teachable moment.
Lemons have been squeezed for lemonade, and lots of copy has moved.
Francis’ “unguarded moments” with the press have generated frivolous headlines and salacious reportage in the past. His willingness to go off script or speak without one has been challenging and often refreshing: Catholics of every age and sex and state of life in the Church have come out of the woodwork to explain what Pope Francis really meant, and many people who would not otherwise have heard perked up and listened. It was possible to explain what Pope Francis really meant, however, because there was a record of what he really said. This time, and every time with Scalfari, it is different.
For the record: Pope Francis believes in hell. He has preached on hell, warned of hell, threatened evildoers with hell, even explained hell to children. While it would be wrong to say none of that matters, it is true and necessary to say it is beside the point, which is that Scalfari is notorious, and Francis’ continued entertainment and enabling of his hijinks indefensible.
Scalfari neither makes recordings, nor takes notes during his “colloquies” with major figures, of which he has had many over the years, including with Pope Francis. Since Francis’ election the pair have met five times, four of which have resulted in pieces that were later the subject of official statements from the Press Office of the Holy See or on-the-record remarks from the official Vatican spokesman distancing the Holy Father from the reports.
The Press Office’s statement this time was carefully phrased to let us know the Pope did not say any of the words Scalfari attributed to him in this latest execrable screed. Taken at face value, the statement tells us what Pope Francis did not say. That does not make it possible to correct the record, for there is no record to correct. The statement also tells us Francis received Scalfari privately and released no interview. That does not tell us whether Pope Francis agreed to Scalfari’s publishing an account of their meeting. Pope Francis may be a victim in this wretched affair. He is not innocent.
“Fool me once,” the saying goes, “shame on you.” The second half is, “Fool me twice, shame on me.” We have no idiomatic expression for one who is fooled at least twice as many times as twice, in the same way, and under similar circumstances. The reason must be excess of pity, or general want of shame.
The Pope may believe himself Christ-like in this: willing to expose himself to Scalfari’s outrageous slings for the sake of Scalfari’s own soul, or ready to suffer the venomous arrows of a professionally scandalized coterie of malcontents who accuse him of dining with prostitutes and publicans. Francis is not Christ-like for either: he is Scalfari’s dupe, if not his stooge, at best a near occasion of sin; while publicans and prostitutes appear as paragons of virtue when compared with the manner in which Scalfari plies his trade.
On Palm Sunday, the Holy Father dedicated a significant portion of his homily to an eloquent denunciation of those, who twist words for personal gain and advancement of pet causes in the short term. That denunciation came after a week in which he gave his hand-picked communications chief what can most sternly be characterized as a slap on the wrist — an in-house demotion — for egregiously manipulating and literally blurring the facts, and praised the man for his “human and professional contribution” to the reform work, without which the new prefect — whoever he shall be — apparently cannot be expected to manage.
On Tuesday of Holy Week, Pope Francis gave special and privileged access to Eugenio Scalfari, a man known for having practiced such or similar machinations on the Holy Father himself.
Scalfari claims friendship with the Pope. If it is true, I do not care to learn how Scalfari treats his enemies. False friend of true, Scalfari demonstrates the traits of those who, hard of hearing because hard of heart, will not listen to the Twelve (of whom Peter was to be chief in Christ’s stead). Our Lord promised them all they would encounter such, about whom and whose company and environs He admonished, “[W]hosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words: going forth out of that house or city shake off the dust from your feet” (Mt 10:14).
Our Lord also told His disciples, “Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves” (Mt 10:16). In his dealings with Scalfari, Pope Francis has been neither. The faithful — the sheep of his flock — have suffered as a result of his imprudence. Those not of Christ’s fold have meanwhile been given stones for bread, and possibly worse.
God has entrusted Francis with the Petrine ministry: the threefold munus of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the Universal Church with direct, immediate, and supreme authority over all the Churches and all the faithful. That office is one of enormous power. It is also one that comes with significant constraints on the personal liberty of the one who holds it. If the Pope wishes to give the example of the Good Shepherd, who goes in search of the lost sheep, let him go. Let him go out of the office and in search of his friend.