In a March 28 interview with a longtime friend, La Repubblica editor Eugenio Scalfari—who's an atheist—Pope Francis said that hell does not exist, explaining that condemned souls just disappear. This is a denial of nearly two millennia of Catholic Church teaching about the reality of hell and the immortality of the soul. Just so you know exactly what was said, the exchange in question ran like this:
Scalfari: Your holiness, in our previous meeting you told me that our species will disappear in a certain moment and that God, still out of His creative force, will create new species [I do not know why there was not controversy over that statement, but I will just move forward.] You have never spoken to me about the souls who died in sin and will go to hell to suffer it for eternity. You have, however, spoken to me of good souls admitted to the contemplation of God. But what about bad souls? Where are they punished?
Francis: 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.
Now, from our point of view, he may be on to something. It is not exactly what we we teach, but we do not believe in an ever-burning hell, and we do believe that those who will not repent will be burned up in the Lake of Fire, and those souls, as it were, will disappear in fire. But be that as it may, the Catholic world was a bit flummoxed by what Francis said because as recently as 2007, former Pope Benedict XVI said in a sermon, "Jesus came to tell us that He wants us all in heaven, and that hell, of which so little is said in our time, exists and is eternal for those who closed their hearts to His love." And of course, the catechism of the Catholic Church has for centuries taught both the existence of hell as a punishment and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
On hell, the catechism states, "The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death, the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell—eternal fire. The punishment of hell is eternal separation from God in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs."
On the immortality of the soul it reads, "Endowed with a spiritual and immortal soul, the human person is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake. From his conception, he is destined for eternal beatitude."
The Vatican denies what Pope Francis said to Scalfari and was reported there in that newspaper. So, they released a statement a day later that said this:
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.
In other words, Scalfari used a great deal of what we might call license in his reporting to make up a controversial pseudo-quotation of the Pope. At least, that is the Vatican's point of view at this point.
But that being said, some very highly placed prelates of the Catholic Church are defending the Pope's words. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the most senior Catholic in England and Wales, when asked about the church's teaching amidst this controversy, replied, "There is nowhere in Catholic teaching that actually says any one person is in hell." He believes that the Pope was exploring "the imagery of hellfire and brimstone and all of that. That's never been part of Catholic teaching. It has been part of Catholic iconography." So he takes kind of a middle road in this argument about hell, whether there is or whether there isn't. Hell does exist, he says, but not with all those artistic imaginings that we see in all the paintings that come from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and whatnot, and, of course, have come to be the popular image of what hell is.
It is fascinating to me to watch this happen—to watch these men trying to talk this issue through in public. They obviously realize that there are serious holes in the doctrine of hell and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and they are trying to work it all out as best they can, but of course they lack the truth and they lack God's Spirit, which would help them immensely to make it all work, if they would just believe the truth.
But I think most of all, they lack a very important element, and that is courage. They lack courage. Now why would I say that? Well, if they really decided to teach the truth of hell and the immortality of the soul, they would have to dismantle almost all fundamental Catholic beliefs to make their new ideas mesh without contradiction. Maybe I am being a little bit arrogant here—I do not think so—but they would end up believing I think what we believe. They would have to believe, of course, what the true church should be teaching.
Catholic theologians have realized for centuries that their church doctrine is a kind of house of cards, and if you start pulling out a card here and a card there, and before they know it, the whole edifice has come tumbling down. Especially that one about the immortality of the soul—if they take that one out, all kinds of things have to be changed.
Now, because of this—because they know that the Catholic doctrine is a rather rickety structure, when you come down to it—they have had to bring into existence such things as the Inquisition, known today by the rather benign term, "the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith." If you ever see that, that's the Inquisition. That is what used to kill people back in in the Middle Ages. They have always put a very conservative Catholic prelate as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, because that person who is head of that particular institution within the Catholic Church has to be a bit of a bulldog in order to hold everyone to the same set of doctrines.
Most recently—not the current one, but the one right before him, who was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from Germany, who became Pope Benedict XVI. Many of you may know that Pope Benedict—well, I should say Cardinal Ratzinger, while he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—was known as "God's Rottweiler," and he guarded the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church with a bit of menace. He was known to make sure that everybody stayed in line. Of course, he was the one that was then made Pope after John Paul II died.
That person who is over the Inquisition (or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) has to be quite a hardliner—very orthodox—and the man who is there now has been there since 2008, so he's been there for ten years now—is Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer. He is a Spanish Jesuit and he's also regarded as theologically orthodox, and you can bet that he is doing a very similar job to the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
We might want to keep an eye on this situation as it goes on. Pope Francis, in his short rein, has already been accused of fostering chronic confusion, demeaning the importance of doctrine, appointing bishops who scandalized believers with dubious teaching and pastoral practice, giving prelates who object the impression they will be marginalized (or worse) if they speak out, and causing Catholics to lose confidence in their supreme shepherd. That's not good. There are things going on in the Catholic Church that show that things are pretty shaky there. So, we will have to see if Francis' openness to unorthodox opinions instigates a backlash from conservative Catholics.