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).