“Hell does not exist,” Pope Francis supposedly told atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari, “what exists is the disappearance of sinful souls.”
The trouble is, there is ample evidence to indicate that Pope Francis affirms the Church’s (and, let us remember, Jesus’) teaching on hell.
Last Holy Thursday, when news of Scalfari’s controversial claim was published, all hell broke out on the Internet. The Drudge Report posted it top, front, and center. Major media outlets ran the story. Columnists began to opine. Defenders and critics of Pope Francis went at each other. Many ordinary Catholics wondered what was happening. The Vatican Communications Office responded promptly:
The Holy Father Francis recently received the founder of the newspaper La Repubblica in a private meeting on the occasion of Easter, without however giving him any interviews. What is reported by the author in today’s article is the result of his reconstruction, in which the textual words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted. No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the word of the Holy Father.
The “take home” point of the above is that the account of the Holy Father’s remarks is not reliable.
Some important distinctions are in order about this whole business.
1. There is the issue of whether in general Pope Francis has taught the reality of hell, understood as a permanent state of existence. He has. Repeatedly. This should have been a clue to media about the dubious nature of Scalfari’s claim, especially given his modus operandi of not taking notes and reconstructing what he alleges to have been said from memory alone. Whatever Pope Francis said or didn’t say in his private conversation with Mr. Scalfari, elsewhere he has made clear he stands by traditional Christian teaching on hell. So: repent and believe the good news.
2. There is the issue of what Pope Francis actually said to Mr. Scalfari. There is no transcript or official record of what was said. It’s possible that Pope Francis spoke in theologically nuanced ways about hell, to try to address crude ideas of his atheist conversation partner. For whatever reason, in such a scenario, Mr. Scalfari missed the nuances and simply misunderstood.
3. There is the issue of what Mr. Scalfari claims Pope Francis said. As Scalfari represents things, Pope Francis affirmed a kind of annihilationism, which is the idea that damned persons simply cease to exist. Groups such as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as some liberal Christian theologians, have affirmed annihilationism. In a loose sense annihilation might be regarded as a sort of damnation—an eternal consequence of an evil life. But annihilationism is a doctrine substantially different from hell as the Catholic Church and most other Christian churches have traditionally understood it.
4. There is the distinction between things a pope might say to others in private conversations and official teaching acts of the pope. While we have no significant reason to suppose Pope Francis said something in private to Mr. Scalfari that contradicts what the Pope has publicly taught, it is the public teaching that represents his office, not whatever opinions he might privately share.
5. Although the Vatican’s statement implicitly warns against relying on the Scalfari account, it doesn’t state what, in fact, Pope Francis said to Scalfari. Given the circumstances of the conversation and multiple past incidents of Mr. Scalfari’s inaccurate reporting on conversations with the Holy Father, and Pope Francis’ teaching elsewhere affirming the doctrine of hell, it seems unlikely that Pope Francis said something substantially different to Mr. Scalfari from what the Church teaches. In other words, it is unlikely Pope Francis affirmed annihilationism. But the Vatican statement doesn’t pursue the matter. It should have spelled things out.
6. There is the issue of whether Mr. Scalfari should have been permitted to discuss substantial issues with Pope Francis without the clear indication that any comments in this “non-interview,” personal conversation were “off the record” and “not for publication.” It’s one thing for the Holy Father to engage in a private dialogue with someone; it’s another thing to do so when the person in question publicizes the content of the dialogue or what he takes to be its content. Given Mr. Scalfari’s track record and note-free method of recounting conversations or interviews, it’s hard to understand why the conversation occurred as it did. The decision to allow the conversation seems imprudent, at best; the resulting controversy, predictable and avoidable. If there are reasons to think otherwise, they haven’t been communicated.
7. There is the distinction between a bad thing in itself and good that can be brought from it. Misrepresenting Pope Francis’ teaching (and the Catholic Church’s teaching, which is also Jesus’ teaching) is a bad thing in itself. It should not happen. I know from personal experience that many people have been confused and even misled by Scalfari’s reporting on this important topic. At the same time, some folks have pointed to the silver lining of the Church and others now being in a position to explain the truth about hell and how media so often get it wrong when it comes to reporting on Catholic teaching. That is all true enough. But it says nothing about the prudence of the conversation in the first place, nor about the damage done to those who don’t happen to come across the rebuttal explanation. God can bring good out of bad situations, but this doesn’t mean we should set about creating bad situations in order for God to bring about good out of them.
Let’s hope the lesson regarding Mr Scalfari has finally been learned so we don’t see further international headlines recounting this or that alleged contradiction by Pope Francis of some basic Christian tenet. It’s commendable that the Holy Father talks with Scalfari. Surely, though, there is a way he can do so without the resulting misinformation we have thus far seen. After all, more souls than Mr. Scalfari’s soul are at stake.