Yes, the Pope is a Catholic. But he’s confusing other Catholics.

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 26, 2018

Blogger Mark Mallett has done a real service—and I mean this sincerely—by a long list of links to statements by Pope Francis voicing clearly orthodox Catholic beliefs on topics important to conservative Catholics, including abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, population control, ideology, and the existence of hell.

Sure enough, the Pope is a Catholic. But why is that noteworthy?

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone would have compiled a similar set of links to demonstrate that Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II held conventionally Catholic beliefs. Why is it necessary in the case of Pope Francis?

The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Pope Francis himself has raised the questions about his own orthodoxy, with a long series of provocative public statements. The world expects consistency from the successors of St. Peter; the duty of the Pontiff (and of every bishop) is to preserve intact the faith that has been handed down from the Apostles. When any Pope makes a statement that seems at odds with previous expressions of the faith, it is disquieting. When he makes such statements frequently—and, to compound the problem, declines to clarify them—the result is widespread disorientation. This is the phenomenon that I sought to explain in Lost Shepherd: not that Pope Francis is preaching heresy, but that he has spread confusion about the content of orthodox Catholic belief.

Take for instance the report circulated recently—during Holy Week, of all times—that the Holy Father had denied the existence of Hell. We still don’t know what the Pope actually said in his conversation with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari. We don’t even know whether the Pope knew that Scalfari planned to publish the interview (or his memories thereof). What we do know is that, thanks to the Pope’s penchant for offhand remarks, hundreds of thousands of people were told that the Pope does not believe in Hell.

Once that damage had been done—by Scalfari, I don’t doubt, more than by the Pope—how could it have been repaired? A prompt statement from the Pope, indicating that he certainly does believe in Hell and that Scalfari had misquoted him, might have helped. But such a statement (which was not forthcoming) would not have commanded the same degree of public attention. Of course the Pope believes in Hell. One expects him to believe in Hell. It’s a dog-bites-man story, suitable only for the back pages of the daily newspaper.

And after all what does Pope Francis believe about Hell? He has alluded to its existence on many occasions. Still it is possible that he might proclaim belief in Hell without accepting anything like the ordinary Catholic understanding of what Hell is. It would be theoretically consistent to say (as the Pope has said) that unrepentant Mafiosi go to Hell, and that (as he allegedly said to Scalfari) Hell is the annihilation of souls. So the potential for confusion would remain.

Alternatively, the Vatican might have remarked that Scalfari is an unscrupulous journalist, who was exploiting his personal friendship with the Pontiff to promote his own anti-religious agenda. There would have been a good deal of truth, I believe, in such a statement (which, again, was not made). But that truth would have prompted more pointed questions, about why the Holy Father had agreed to multiple interviews with such an agent provocateur.

One of the Pope’s most enthusiastic supporters, Austen Ivereigh, tackled the latter question on his Twitter feed, portraying the Pope’s interview as a template for the New Evangelization:

This superbly captures the Francis-Scalfari relationship. There’s a Christ-like vulnerability in a pope giving a geriatric atheist the freedom to twist his words. Some Catholics may hate it, but Francis is evangelizing (not proselytising).

Maybe Pope Francis was engaged in evangelization when he sat down to talk with Scalfari. But Christians are not the only believers who see in social media an opportunity for promoting their beliefs—or, in this case, their case for unbelief. When he published the claim that Pope Francis had denied the existence of Hell, Scalfari was engaged in his own evangelization, spreading his anti-Gospel. And he did this with finesse, trapping his subject in a box with no exit.

Yes, the Pope is a Catholic. But he sometimes sounds like a confused Catholic, and therefore a confusing Catholic leader. To recognize that problem does not require accusing the Pope of heresy; the confusion among the faithful is trouble enough.

And the confusion among the faithful—the sense of disorientation—is real. Regrettably, Pope Francis has compounded the problem with his acerbic criticism of the “rigid” Catholics, the “doctors of the law,” the daily Mass-goers, reverent altar-boys, rabbit-like breeders, pro-lifers, and defenders of marriage. These comments—and the nastier remarks by the Pope’s energetic champions on the social media—may bring a sympathetic smirk to the faces of liberal Catholics with master’s degrees from summer theology workshops. But they rattle the simple believers.

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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  • Posted by: concerned_citizen - Apr. 27, 2018 4:46 PM ET USA

    As feedback said, I admit I've largely checked out on daily news of the Pope. It's too confusing. Honestly, I was shocked at my own reaction to the recent Scalfari interview: "Ah, Francis doesn't believe in hell...par for the course." One hard thing for me with Francis is that it seems we've lost the Catholic balance of holding apparent opposites in tension to display a deeper unity at work (e.g. Its not "be ye perfect" against God's mercy, but rather together with it on our road to heaven).

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 27, 2018 8:19 AM ET USA

    "There’s a Christ-like vulnerability in a pope giving a geriatric atheist the freedom to twist his words." This captures the problem. Just imagine what Pope Pius X would have replied to this comment. If not sure, read "Pascendi." The problem is not just the thought itself but the whole way of thinking. The gospel has always been approached by the Church as a treasure; as something to be assiduously guarded and preached with clarity (and charity) for the "simple believers." "Watch!"says Our Lord.

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 27, 2018 8:08 AM ET USA

    I've noticed that many faithful practicing Catholics, laity and clergy, have quit altogether trying to understand, follow, quote or explain what Pope Francis is saying or doing, out of respect for the office of the Successor of St. Peter and out of charity. Which creates a false impression of calm. The remedy is in fervent prayers for the Pope and the Church with greater involvement of faithful lay Catholics with their zeal for the Lord and for the truth. Christ is always present in His Church.

  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 26, 2018 5:39 PM ET USA

    And rattled we should be. There is one other facet to this problem, which is that this pope has surrounded himself with men who not only advance the progressive propaganda in the media, but he positioned as ring leaders in the Vatican, players such as Paglia, and Coccopalmerio. It is not clear that these men are Catholic in the ordinary meaning of the term, since at every turn they seek to cut today's Church off from taproot of its traditions. They are "wreckers" and Francis is their boss.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Apr. 26, 2018 3:57 PM ET USA

    A pope cannot openly contradict Church doctrine. He, however, can undermine it by stating Church doctrine one day, and stating something that can be interpreted as contradicting Church doctrine another day, but mostly by refusing to make things clear after the ensuing confusion. This is what it appears Pope Francis is doing. By the fruits of this pontificate we can evaluate Pope Francis, and in particular and so far, by the fruits of Amoris Laetitia.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Apr. 26, 2018 1:55 PM ET USA

    Clever evangelizing? We will know them by their fruits, so when is Scalfari scheduled for his entry into the Church? And let's just ignore the scandalizing of those already shaky in their faith, or those who are on the edge of conversion, but who recoil at these antics. Those liberal (read: dissident) Catholics who celebrate this situation are getting pretty desperate in their attempts at defense.