Pope Francis and Hell

Dante's InfernoThere is a report presently circulating Catholic and non-Catholic media sites claiming that Pope Francis has denied the Church’s teachings on the existence of hell and the damnation of souls.  The report comes from an interview with the pope by 93-year-old atheistic philosopher Eugenio Scalfari, which was printed in the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica.  However, Scalfari’s notorious method is to neither electronically record an interview nor take notes by hand.  Hence, as has repeatedly happened in the past, his interviews with Pope Francis more often contain his own poor memory of the exchange, or even worse, his personal views placed on the lips of the pope.   This has led to the presumption that the pope denies defined Catholic teachings, or at least questions their veracity.

According to the story, Pope Francis said the following:

“They are not punished.  Those who repent obtain the forgiveness of God and enter the rank of souls who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”

According to this claim, unrepentant souls are annihilated – a belief contradicted by defined Catholic teaching and clearly expounded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium.  The Vatican quickly responded to the confusion by releasing the following statement:

“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 words of the Holy Father.”

I suppose this response is better than silence, but it certainly doesn’t inspire a confidence that the pope said nothing of the sort.  It still allows for the possibility that, although the pope’s words were not directly quoted, nevertheless, Scalfari correctly reported their meaning and substance.   As usual, the faithful are left wondering if the head of the Catholic Church on earth actually holds the Catholic faith in its entirety.  What is needed – immediately – is a clear and firm statement from the pope himself, affirming Catholic doctrine on hell and damnation and denying the whole substance of the Scalfari’s report.  And it wouldn’t hurt to hear a few courageous statements from our own clergy as well, affirming their personal adherence to the concerned doctrines.  But I’m not holding my breath for either.

First and foremost, interviews with journalists are not organs of official Catholic teaching, nor are conversations, newspapers, periodicals, websites, Saturday Night Live, or MAD Magazine.  The proper means for declaring Catholic doctrine is the papal or conciliar document.  But without getting caught up in the usual media-generated hysteria over Pope Francis’ alleged statements, and keeping in mind that he has mentioned hell in the past, the best way for a properly-formed Catholic to respond to this sort of confusion is always with the same two words: He can’t.  Period.  Pope Francis does not have the authority to eliminate from the deposit of faith defined Catholic teaching.  No one does.  The magisterium of the Church has the commission and authority only to declare and expound truth, not to invent or deny it.

Yes, there is a legitimate development of doctrine over time, by virtue of the Spirit of Truth Who guides the Church into all the truth, and the magisterium plays a central role in determining what is, or is not, of this Holy Spirit.  In a similar way, this happens even in the short life time of a Bible Christian who reads the same Bible over and over; and with each reading, he or she gradually develops a biblical interpretation.  All the more is this true for the ancient Church that has been teaching, studying, praying, living, and dying for the biblical faith for two thousand years.

However, denial of a previously held doctrine is not development, but just the opposite.  Denial is just denial, a pitiable act of unbelief by a non-believer.

The ongoing chaos of the present pontificate has induced many Catholics – both good-willed and ill-willed – to conclude that Catholicism is nothing more than a collection of cherished opinions and personal preferences held by a currently reigning pope.  This view is just absurd.  If such were the case, then no one could speak of the “Catholic religion” in a meaningful sense, or without making a quick phone call to the Vatican in order to find out what the pope was thinking and feeling today.  Then Catholicism would be merely an ever-revolving ideological door directed by the whim of one man, and the sources of its teachings – Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition – would be regarded as only pious but foolish literature.  In fact, this is precisely how modernists view Scripture and Tradition.

But if such were the case, how could a presently reigning pope be the one exception?   If Scripture and Tradition are discredited, then so, too, is the papacy; for it is within these two sources that we learn about the papacy.  If they go, then the pope goes with them.

To put it another way, if the Church of past centuries was wrong when teaching definitively on matters of faith and morals, then why in the world would we trust the same Church in modern times to teach on the same, and even to pronounce against her teachings of the past?  Specifically, if she was wrong in teaching about the existence of hell and the eternal damnation of souls and angels, then could she not also be wrong if she later denied these doctrines?  If she was wrong then, could she not also be wrong now?  And if she was wrong then, could she not also be wrong now in her corrections of her past teachings?  Absolutely.  This is what modernists just do not “get” about their own methods and claims.  To the degree they discredit the Church, they discredit themselves as well.  And any bishop or priest who denies the Church’s teachings from the pulpit should expect never to see the pews filled again.  For who needs a gravely erring Church?  Only the devil does.

It seems as if the excerpt below needs to become a permanent virtual signature that, in this era of catechetical chaos, accompanies every Catholic news item.  Catholics always and everywhere must know and remember what the Catechism prudently teaches:

“Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it.  At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully.  All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith” (CCC 87).




Two Methods of Teaching Heresy

Catholic moral theology teaches that there are two ways of sinning: either we can do what we shouldn’t have done, or else, we can fail to do what we should have done.  The first is called a sin of commission and the second a sin of omission.  These two moral categories offer insight into sins against faith as well.

The Compendium says,

Faith believes in God and rejects everything that is opposed to it, such as deliberate doubt, unbelief, heresy, apostasy, and schism” (#442).

The Catechism teaches,

Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same” (#2089).

In order to commit a sin of heresy against the faith, one must first know that a particular belief belongs to that deposit of faith taught by the Church and intended for all the faithful to believe.  The person who, in ignorance, rejects such teaching is a material heretic, while the person who knowingly rejects such teaching is a formal heretic.  The guilt of a material heretic can be minimal or non-existent, while the guilt of a formal heretic is grave.

An example of a material heretic is a child who was born and raised in a Protestant or Catholic home in which the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist was denied.  The child’s duty is to accept and respect that faith and religious practice which his or her parents provides.  Of course, eventually the child will reach the age at which he or she has the duty to more carefully examine the parents’ faith and decide for or against its veracity.  If, after examining the doctrine, the adult person realizes that their parents’ faith is in error and that the Real Presence actually belongs to the ancient and Apostolic faith, then he or she has the duty to renounce the heresy and embrace the truth.  Otherwise, the guilt of that heresy will cease being merely material and become formal and grave.

My concern with this post is not with the actual heretic or his or her guilt, but rather, with the methods used in spreading heresy.  The modern Church offers us countless demonstrations of the point I’d like to make.

As with the two ways of sinning, so with the two methods of teaching heresy.  The simpler and more obvious method is heresy by commission.  This consists of asserting either that something false is true, or else, that something true is false.  The heretic boldly and openly proclaims the heresy, and by comparing it with the true faith, any person who cares can, with research, come to realize the teaching is an error.

However, the far more effective and shrewd method of teaching heresy is heresy by omission.  This approach ultimately involves no false statements or contradictions of the truth.  There is no asserted doctrine that is heretical, but only a long-term effect.  The false teaching is more of an impression, and this keeps it virtually invisibleHeresy by omission consists of teaching only a portion of the truth as if it were the whole truth.  When this is done week after week and year after year, those who receive such teaching and look no further develop an incomplete and warped faith – one that is lacking fundamental elements of the Gospel and is, therefore, truly heretical.

Now for a few examples.  Let’s again take the Real Presence.  According to the heresy by omission method, one can effectively deny this doctrine simply by never teaching about it.  Simply assert, year after year, that the Holy Mass is a commemoration of Jesus’ love for us, and nothing more.  There’s no need to deny a doctrinal truth; just avoid it in both preaching and music.  The people will slowly get the erroneous message that the Holy Mass is no different from a Protestant communion service – juice and crackers for every single member of the community of faith, no exceptions.  Without an uttered word of heresy, belief in the Real Presence, Transubstantiation, and the sacrificial nature of the Mass will simply melt away and appear to peoples’ memories to have been discarded as “old Church” dogma.

Consider also death, judgment, purgatory, hell, and heaven.  By following the heresy by omission method and omitting from the pulpit all except the last item, the preacher can effectively wipe out the “last things” from Catholic consciousness, minus the most pleasant one – heaven.  He merely has to let the Advent and Lenten seasons pass, as well as the Feast of Christ the King and the funerals, week after week and year after year, without uttering a syllable about the temporal and eternal consequences of mortal and venial sin.  The method will invariably bear its insipid fruit.  Having heard nothing about judgment, purgatory, or hell, but only constant assurances about easy salvation, the faithful will cheerfully conclude that everyone and their pet goes to heaven.

Consider especially the love and mercy of God.  On any given Sunday, regardless of the themes of the Scripture readings, one can expect to hear a sermon in which it is asserted that God is love and mercy ad infinitum.  There’s nothing wrong with this statement; it’s positively Gospel truth, period.  But there’s far more to say about God than just this; namely, that He is also just, and has repeatedly said so Himself.   And any preacher who will not passionately and repeatedly warn his congregation of this fact – for love of that congregation – is a negligent and dangerous shepherd indeed.   With such shepherds, what need is there for wolves?  The end result of hearing, week after week and year after year, that God is only loving and merciful – even to unrepentant sinners – is the presumption that God is not just and will never punish anyone for anything.  Could a more replete encouragement to sin exist than this subtle denial of the Day of Judgment?

Heresy by omission is widespread in the modern Church.  As an example, in the past twenty-four years, I’ve heard the Catechism of the Catholic Church quoted from in homilies a total of three times!  Probably many Catholics are unaware that such an authoritative resource even exists.  The Catechism contains the complete faith, including those many doctrines and morals which have been methodically and consistently omitted for decades  from our Sunday sermons.  I guess avoiding the Catechism only makes sense, if you’re promoting another gospel.

Folks, read the Catechism and the Compendium and the Bible!   Don’t expect to be handed the truth that saves.  Care enough about the temporal and eternal welfare of your own souls to seek the truth for yourselves, and then bring it to others.  There is absolutely no excuse in this age of media to be without it for even one more moment.  Only the Truth can set you free to salvation.  There is hope in No One else.