The Vatican challenged the reliability of a journalist’s memory after a report that the Pope had denied the existence of hell. Eugenio Scalfari, a friend of the Pope, wrote in La Repubblica that Francis had told him: “Those who do not repent … disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”
The Vatican press office said that Scalfari’s quotation was only a “reconstruction” of their exchange and therefore “could not be considered a faithful transcription”.
What the media said
“Even the Pope doesn’t believe in hell so why should we?” was the headline in the Independent’s letters section. Another headline, at Psychology Today, read: “Smile, There Is No Hell (Even the Pope Says So)”.
The Vatican statement, though not a complete denial, cast doubt on Scalfari’s account. “This is not the first time Scalfari – an avowed atheist – has published a controversial statement attributed to Pope Francis, only for the Vatican to walk it back,” noted Tara Isabella Burton at Vox. That the Pope still speaks freely to Scalfari “says as much about Francis’s unorthodox approach to the media as it does about Francis’s theology”. But “Francis’s consistent reliance on Scalfari as a potential mouthpiece for heterodox thought renders each denial a little less plausible”.
What Catholic commentators said
The Vatican, noted Michael Brendan Dougherty at National Review, “pointedly issued no specific denial of any of the Pope’s words. Amazing to say it, but that’s typical. In essence this constitutes an invitation to disbelieve whatever you want.”
There’s an important context, Dougherty added: “The whole intellectual culture of Catholic seminaries and formation is filled with doublespeak. Doctrines are proclaimed in creedal statements, and then their contents are emptied in theological essays, or given a completely opposite interpretation in ‘practical’ application.”
At catholicculture.org, Phil Lawler said the Vatican’s denial left a mystery in the air: “Did he say something close enough so that Scalfari’s quotation is not totally inaccurate?”
✣✣ British bishop: confess sins before Communion
Bishop Mark Davies has reminded Catholics to confess their sins before receiving Communion. In a pastoral letter to be read this Sunday, the bishop said: “We can never approach Holy Communion casually, still less if we have not confessed and repented of any mortal sin or of a lifestyle in contradiction with our Christian calling.”
Why was it under-reported
This looks like a minor story of “Bishop repeats Catholic teaching”. But the remarks directly address questions about the sacraments and sexual morality which are now controversial.
Some bishops have argued that Catholics should ask whether God is calling them to the Eucharist, rather than thinking in terms of sin. They cite the Pope in support, though Francis recently restated traditional teaching: “We know that one who has committed a serious sin should not approach Holy Communion without having first obtained absolution.”
What will happen next?
Debates around sin and the Eucharist will continue. For instance, the bishops of England and Wales have not yet written their response to Amoris Laetitia, two years after it appeared – probably because the Communion question is so difficult to confront.
The Polish bishops face a similar dilemma. To repeat traditional teaching would bring them much opposition; but not to do so would disappoint many Poles, including the 145,000 who signed a letter asking the bishops to uphold the prohibition on Communion for the remarried.
✣The week ahead
Next Friday Fr James Pereiro will give a talk on “Cardinal Manning and Social Engagement” at St Mary Moorfields, London. Doors open at 6.45pm and the talk begins at 7.30pm. Tickets are not needed. Cardinal Manning was actively engaged in the promotion of social justice and encouraged Catholics to be involved in the social issues of the day.
The Annunciation of the Lord is celebrated next Monday, rather than its usual date of March 25. If the feast falls on Palm Sunday it is transferred to Low Monday, the Monday after the Sunday after Easter.
This Sunday is the second anniversary of Amoris Laetitia. Interpretation of the papal exhortation on marriage and family life has caused heated debates which are likely to continue on the anniversary. The central controversy is over whether Pope Francis was advocating a change in the Church’s teaching on divorce, the Eucharist and absolute moral norms.