Did Pope Francis deny the existence of Hell? If previous episodes in this pontificate are any guide, those who earnestly seek a definitive answer will likely discover that, much like the natural fate of the Tootsie Pop, the world may never know. But before the rest of us have a catharsis of confirmation bias, let’s review.
During Holy Week 2018, the gods of the news cycle gave great attention to this reported papal denial (courtesy of La Repubblica), which was juicy enough for them to move on from their previously chosen “religion news” item of emphasis: that Stormy Daniels proves Trump-voting evangelicals are hypocrites. (The media lords had already reached this conclusion by November 2016.) Verily, there was great rejoicing amongst the chattering classes when noted atheist-opinionist Eugenio Scalfari’s “interview” with Pope Francis, published on Tuesday of Holy Week, yielded the stunning quotation, complete with quotation marks, that “those who do not repent, and cannot therefore be forgiven, disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”
Obviously, that’s nuts—or, more properly speaking, annihilationism. The Bible and Church teaching are pretty plain when it comes to the existence and eternality of the place where “the worm dieth not.” As one fundamentalist preacher reminded me during my misspent youth—at full volume, fist wagging—if you don’t turn from your sin and trust Christ, “you’ll have your own worms.” This is, after all, why Christ died: to save us from the wages of our own sin.
Namely death, of which there are two kinds, according to St. John’s Revelation. The “lake of fire . . . This is the second death.”
The Pope’s alleged denial of Hell was followed by an alleged denial of the denial of Hell courtesy of the Holy See. I say “alleged,” because the Vatican’s statement denied only that Scalfari’s quotation was a direct one: “No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”
Those previously uninitiated into the world of Vatican intriguery were soon told by others who are not of the Holy See that Scalfari is notorious for his “reconstructed” (à la Michael Wolff ) conversations without the benefit of notes or recordings, that he is in fact 93 years old (and ergo, we presume, senile), and that as a self-professed atheist he has an agenda. Direct quotations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church were marshaled, affirming the standard teaching on Hell shared by all Christians.
Of course, my friends who are faithful Catholics would say that the media routinely distort the Pope’s statements, that one should read his undistorted words in their original context, and that ultimately it doesn’t matter: No Pope can change the established teachings of the Church. Doctrine “is clarified” and “develops,” but it is never changed or contradicted authoritatively. When the Pope speaks from the Chair of St. Peter on matters of faith and morals, he cannot err, for he possesses the charism of infallibility by virtue of his office. Thus, whenever this (or any other modern) Pope says something odd, which sounds like an heretical pronouncement on a matter of faith or morals, my “Chair Is Vacant” Catholic friends will say that, well, you can guess.
My fellow Lutherans and I, together with our Protestant friends, have what my Catholic friends call a “paper pope.” That’s a reference to our insistence that the Bible alone is the final authority on matters of faith and morals, the famous Sola Scriptura of the Reformation. To be fair, we Lutherans have a bit more nuance to add, which means more Latin: Holy Scripture is the norma normans, the “norming norm” of Christian doctrine. We accept Tradition insofar as it is normed, past and present, by the Bible. Our Confessions (the Book of Concord) are the norma normata; they are normed norms. We Confessional Lutherans subscribe without hesitation to the entire Book of Concord because (quia) they agree with Scripture. Thus, the Book of Concord includes the Ecumenical Creeds, as well as other confessional documents from the era of the Reformation.
Roman Catholics accuse those of us who reject the so-called Petrine Ministry of relying on mere private judgment, following our paper pope in a thousand different directions, however it may suit us. We, in turn, find the thousands of private judgments made by Catholics on the latest Pope Francis statement to be hypocritical; that the insistence on the need for magisterial authority kicks the can of judgment down the road; and that the kicked can rests at the feet of a mere mortal who, exercising his private judgment, can and does err. To deny the existence of Hell, as taught plainly in the Bible, is to err.
Did he? Does he? Pope Francis has in fact talked about Hell previously. And in such a way as to suggest that he believes in a Something Called Hell. But what is That Something? In 2015 he referred to “the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell.” That was in the context of a common theme of his, his admonition to the “rich, proud, and powerful” who refuse to receive Christ in the person of the poor. Does this solitary abyss amount to a place of everlasting torment for the resurrected damned? He doesn’t say either way.
Elsewhere, Pope Francis has referenced Hell in the context of condemning older Catholics who would have consigned Protestants to it. More than once he’s talked about the catechists of his childhood, whose infernal severity was corrected for him by his mother. She told him that members of the Salvation Army were good and would not be going to the place of fiery torment. This was confirmed, to his relief, by the teaching of Vatican II about “separated brethren.”
As evidenced by the fallout from the infamous “change” in doctrine that wasn’t a change in doctrine found in Chapter 8 of his Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis seems to rely on his ability to be misquoted and misunderstood. We are to see this as a kind of 4D Chess evangelism. But it is, in all actuality, unvarnished antinomianism. How can “an objective situation of sin” have “mitigating factors” that take away “subjective culpability” after one has been instructed that he is, in fact, living in sin? Does one’s mere admission that one’s situation is objectively sinful amount to repentence? Does such an admission absolve one of the guilt of continuing to live in that “situation”? Should such a person be admitted to communion? “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments,” wrote Pope Francis, and this is what several powerful and progressive bishops, as well as the media, wanted to hear, regarding the admission of divorced and “remarried” Catholics to communion. But the faithful could cling to the fact that he also said, “In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage,” and that he connected traditional marriage with young people’s “full participation in the Church.”
The Pope’s appeal to his various audiences that they avoid misunderstanding him indicates that he is aware of both the possibility and the probability, even the likelihood, that they will misunderstand him. Why write an “apostolic” exhortation that is less than crystal clear? Why grant interviews (that are “not interviews”) repeatedly to an atheist who has an agenda and who always invents his own quotations?
“Please, do not say: ‘The Pope blesses transsexuals!’ Please! Because I can already see the newspaper headlines . . . No, no.” This plea came toward the end of an October 2, 2016, in-flight press conference whose transcript is posted on the Vatican’s website. “Are there any doubts about what I said? I want to be clear. It is a moral problem. It is a problem. It is a human problem.”
Why did he need to make such a plea? Because, in speaking of Hell, sin, and sacraments, he had told a confusing story. He contrasted the actions of a young priest with those of an older priest whom he obviously respected. The young priest, whenever he would see a particular transman in the streets, would yell, “You are going to Hell!” The old one would regularly invite the transman to confession and communion.
Now, according to reality, this Spanish transman was a woman who thought she was a man, and who’d had mutilating surgeries to appear as a man, after which “he” had “married” a woman. And according to the Bible, the young priest rightly told her that she was “going to Hell”—if she didn’t repent. Presumably, repentence would mean she would cease to live as a man and in defiance of natural law, in whatever ways remain available to her. But Pope Francis denounced the pastoral admonition of the young priest, praising instead the old priest who communed her, dressed as a man. This the Pope calls having “an open heart”: It means acknowledging sins but not imposing consequences—neither the ban from the altar nor the threat of Hell.
Pope Francis unambiguously refers to this self-mutilated woman in a de facto gay marriage as a man: “he wrote me a letter saying that it would bring comfort to him to come see . . . me with his bride: he, who had been she, but is he. I received them. They were pleased.”
I agree that we should not use the word hell lightly, tossing it around as a curse word, and so it is in this spirit that I say: Who the hell knows what Pope Francis believes? As best as I can tell, it is that postmodern society is so irreparably broken that the old rules, the old strictures, the bans and the damns, cannot be applied as they once were. Or rather, that he has the power to lift them. And in lifting them, he does not wish to cause scandal among the faithful and create utter moral chaos, so he speaks in a manner that allows them to declare, contrary to plain reason, that nothing has changed. And if they push back, they will be reminded that they need to have compassion, that all men are sinners in need of grace, and that “the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’” Of course, each of those things is true, and so is the real threat of Hell.
Aha! says the Lutheran, convinced he has confirmation for all of his judgments on the papacy. Then I remember the parish where, years ago, I encountered a pastor who was communing a woman living in open adultery; he said “her desire for the Sacrament is proof that she knows she needs forgiveness.”I think of the antinomianism that still plagues my own synod, where recently our Commission on Theology and Church Relations could not muster the courage to condemn the violation of natural law involved in sending women into combat, turning instead to Jiminy Cricket’s “Let your conscience be your guide” as norma normans. I think of the evangelical megachurches that believe (on paper, somewhere) in Hell but never mention it, for fear I guess that the fog machine that is providing their praise band’s Shekinah glory will be mistaken by an “unchurched” visitor for the opening of the Abyss. We’ve all drunk from the same well of antinomianism. We all do our part to help the unformed conscience pretend that Hell doesn’t exist.
Of all times, Holy Week is the right time to mention Hell—unambiguously, authoritatively. Look at what it cost the Son of God to conquer it for us!