Confusion—now about hell—is the hallmark of this pontificate

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 29, 2018

Okay, Pope Francis probably did not say: “There is no hell.” But that’s the headline story for today—for Holy Thursday. And while maybe the interviewer is responsible for an inaccurate quotation, the Pope himself is responsible for the ensuing confusion.

The Vatican, naturally, has rushed out another “clarification.” Notice, however, that the Vatican statement does not actually deny that Pope Francis uttered those words. Because the truth is that nobody actually knows exactly what he said.

Here is the statement attributed to the Pontiff, in an article that appeared in La Repubblica, regarding the fate of unrepentant sinners:

They are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and join the ranks of those souls who contemplate Him. But those who do not repent, and so cannot be forgiven, disappear. There is no hell; there is the disappearance of sinful souls.

That quotation appeared in a piece by Eugenio Scalfari, who interviewed the Holy Father earlier this week. Following his usual practice, Scalfari did not record the session, nor did he even take notes. The veteran journalist—who, by the way, is nearing his 94th birthday—relied on his memory to reconstruct the conversation. So the words that were in quotation marks in his article may or may not be the words of Pope Francis.

So today’s Vatican statement is certainly true: “No quotation in the aforementioned article can therefore be considered a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”

But that non-denial leaves two questions unanswered:

  1. Did the Pope say those words—or did he say something close enough so that Scalfari’s quotation is not totally inaccurate?
  2. Why did the Pope submit to an interview with a journalist who would not quote him accurately?

Bear in mind that this is not the first time that Scalfari has interviewed the Pontiff, nor is it the first time that his articles have produced sensational headlines, based on shocking “quotations” from the Pontiff. In fact this is Scalfari’s fifth such interview. Again and again and again the Vatican public-relations machinery has cranked out a clarification, reminding bewildered Catholics that the quotations may not have been accurate.

Then again, maybe the quotations were accurate. In 2015, Scalfari made a similar report that the Pope had denied the reality of hell. If that report was inaccurate, why didn’t Pope Francis correct him in subsequent conversations, so that he would not make the same error again? For that matter, why doesn’t the Pontiff issue a statement of his own, right now, affirming that he does believe in hell? At this point, it is difficult to deny that either Scalfari is deliberately twisting the Pope’s statements—in which case he should certainly not be granted interviews—or the Pope is making statements that justify the headline coverage.

Pope Francis evidently thinks of Scalfari as a friend, and he certainly has the right to speak freely with his friends. But why would he speak on the record, if he knows that the record will be distorted? I can only conclude that Pope Francis—the Pope who encouraged young Catholics to “make a mess”—is deliberately creating confusion.

In Lost Shepherd I wrote: “The confusion in Amoris Laetitia is not a bug; it is a feature.” Pope Francis realized that he cannot directly contradict the perennial teaching of the Church, put forth so clearly by St. John Paul II. But he could and did create confusion about that teaching, and thereby provided new maneuvering room for those who are unhappy with the Church’s stand.

By the same logic, Pope Francis cannot deny the existence of hell without directly contradicting the teaching of the Church. But he can create confusion, and he has done so once again. Did he deny, or at least question, the existence of hell? We don’t know.

Countless thousands of puzzled people have now heard that the Pope believes there is no hell. Maybe he was misquoted; maybe he had intended a different message. But we do know what message he did not send. As the Christian world enters into the Triduum, commemorating the Passion of Christ, the headlines did not read: “Pope says Jesus died to save us from our sins.”

What possible purpose could this interview with Scalfari have served, if not to cause confusion about the Catholic faith? Confusion is the hallmark of this pontificate: not a bug but a feature.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: [email protected] - Apr. 11, 2018 12:41 AM ET USA

    The Pope's silence and lack of clarification speaks volumes. Great teaching point time. Confusion and chaos is a great way of making change or at least a different direction with little focus on what you are doing. This Pope is an expert on confusion and chaos. Where we are going is a good question. Jesus will always be with us and Mary will shelter us.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Apr. 01, 2018 12:25 PM ET USA

    It is hard to believe that Pope Francis continues to give interviews to Mr. Scalfari, given Scalfari's presumed lack of accuracy and occasion for scandal. On second thought, it is not hard to believe. What else is new? Sadly, we are witnessing a comedy (on second thought, a tragedy) of errors.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Apr. 01, 2018 6:35 AM ET USA

    The reliability of Mr. Scalfari--or, rather, the lack of it--is not the issue. The problem arises when Pope Francis fails to immediately, emphatically, and publicly state that the report is incorrect. Having Vatican operatives make a non-correction "correction" only adds to the confusion and consternation, as does the Pope's own later "clarifications" when he later publicly supports those who come out in support of the erroneous idea--while publicly excoriating those who speak against it.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 30, 2018 6:36 PM ET USA

    his continues to be my concern. The statement is based on what someone else said the Pope said. The Pope has publicly stated multiple times in the past that Hell is real. Why so much credence given to Mr. Scalfari, an atheist to boot I have read, work? I am willing to agree where error and problems exist but in this case I think you might be off base.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Mar. 30, 2018 3:24 AM ET USA

    Ambiguity on all matters of importance illustrates, at best, an incompetent pope, and at worst, far worse.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Mar. 29, 2018 8:45 PM ET USA

    It is simply mind-boggling that Pope Francis has continued to utter even a syllable to Scalfari.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Mar. 29, 2018 6:37 PM ET USA

    Recently a member of my book study group was distressed over the teaching that some go to hell. I emailed with her about this and shared a link to the Catechism on this subject, I don't know if her worries (related to affection for some friends living an obviously sinful lifestyle) were totally alleviated, but I'm sure she accepted that what I said was, at any rate, Catholic teaching. It seems like Pope Francis may have made it harder for people to consider what the Church, and the Gospels, say.

  • Posted by: shrink - Mar. 29, 2018 3:34 PM ET USA

    Bergoglio cannot bring himself to believe at once that God is merciful and God is just-meaning that a soul can be damned-perhaps he craves the praises of the people. Bergoglio is also mysteriously restrained from formally teaching heresy. Thus, he creates the papal version of the wink-and-nod. His ambiguity speaks volumes. When tough love doctrine is at stake, he is Ninja master of double-speak. He warned us of this technique in AL #3. We now witness the emergence of a parallel magisterium.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Mar. 29, 2018 11:55 AM ET USA

    It's not that we deserve a better Pope, because it seems that we have one that fits (but is not fitting) for these times. But I fear for the souls of those who are influenced by the errors and confusion created. Overall, however, I must accept my ignorance of God's ways, trust in Him, and say, "Thy Will Be Done." I never realized how difficult such a simple statement could be.