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Hell’s relevance today - Martin Scicluna

Architectural details of lost souls being led into hell on the façade of Notre Dame’ Cathedral in Paris.

Architectural details of lost souls being led into hell on the façade of Notre Dame’ Cathedral in Paris.

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis, to my delight, was reported in an article published by Eugenio Scalfari in La Repubblica as saying that: “There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”

The Vatican subsequently said that the comment could not be considered a faithful transcript of the Pope’s words, claiming that “the literal words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted” and that “no notation of the article should be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father”. In a terse statement, the Vatican added that the lengthy article by Scalfari was “the fruits of his reconstruction, and not a faithful transcription of the Holy Father’s words”.

While the Vatican conceded that Scalfari, an atheist who struck up a friendship with Francis in 2013, had held a private meeting with the Pontiff before the Easter weekend, it explained that an interview had not been granted. Scalfari once said that it was the Pope who asked for these meetings as he liked “to exchange ideas and sentiments with non-believers”. Scalfari, who is 93, prides himself on not taking notes or recording high-profile interviews. But this is not the first time he has been accused of misrepresenting the Pope. In 2014, he was rebuked by the Vatican for an article saying Francis had abolished sin.

During this meeting, Scalfari had asked the Pope where “bad souls” go. To which the Pope allegedly responded: “They are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and take their place among the ranks of those who contemplate him. But those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven disappear. A hell doesn’t exist. The disappearance of sinning souls exists.”

The Catholic Church’s teachings affirm the existence of hell and its eternity, saying: “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation of God.” Pope Benedict XVI said in 2007 that: “Hell really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much anymore.” And in 1999, Pope John Paul II announced that hell was “the ultimate consequence of sin itself… rather than a place. Hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”

Pope Francis’s words, even though strongly denied by the Vatican, have naturally raised a furore among the ardent conservatives in the Catholic Church, who will seek any occasion to criticise him.

As a fascinated follower of Vatican and Church politics, what I find interesting about such reports is how they play out with the backward-looking traditionalists and arch-conservatives in the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American, was quick off the mark to join traditionalists rallying against the Pope. He entered the attack saying: “What happened with the latest interview given to Eugenio Scalfari during Holy Week, and made public on Holy Thursday, was beyond tolerable. That a famous atheist claims to announce a revolution in the teaching of the Catholic Church, believing to speak in the name of the Pope, denying the immortality of the human soul and the existence of hell, has been a source of profound scandal.”

According to Burke the Holy See’s official denial had been completely inadequate. “Instead of clearly reasserting the truth about the immortality of the human soul and hell, the denial only states that some of the words quoted are not the Pope’s. It does not say that the erroneous and even heretical ideas expressed by these words are not shared by the Pope, and that the Pope repudiates these ideas.”

Pope Francis’s words, even though strongly denied by the Vatican, have naturally raised a furore among the ardent conservatives in the Catholic Church

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former most senior Vatican doctrinal counsellor until a year ago, has also joined in, saying that the Catholic Church is sliding towards a schism as Pope Francis fails to respond to anxieties of conservatives about his reforms. He has advised that the Church hierarchy must listen to people who are posing serious questions, and not ignore or humiliate them.

“Otherwise,” Cardinal Müller told Corriera della Sera, “without wanting to, it could increase the risk of a slow separation that could end up in a schism by a part of the Catholic world, disoriented and dismayed.”

“The history of Martin Luther’s Protestant schism 500 years ago, which was marked last year, should teach us above all what are the errors to be avoided.”

Much of the division stems from the Pope’s attempt to modernise teaching on marriage and divorce, in particular his suggestion that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics might receive communion. Catholics who had sought clarification of the teaching, and other leading Catholics who had written a critical letter to the Pope, deserved a hearing, rather than being dismissed as “Pharisees” or “grumblers”, Cardinal Müller said.

It was time, he thought, for the Pope’s concept of a “field hospital” for the afflicted to become a spiritual Silicon Valley. “We should be the Steve Jobs of faith and transmit a strong vision in terms of moral and cultural values and spiritual and theological truths.”

Marco Tosatti, an author and veteran Vatican-watcher said Cardinal Müller’s interview with Corriera della Sera marked an important escalation in the conflict. The cardinal had expressed similar, though less caustic, views before but to less widely read Catholic publications. The Pope’s failure to respond to his critics created a lack of trust and division in the Church, Tosatti averred. “The schism already exists.”

The Pope has had hell to pay for his views on the afterlife. I must confess that I find them most attractive – but then who am I to raise important theological issues?

I have always been attracted by the words in St John, quoting Jesus’s words to Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

I have heard many sermons on the text. It is often preached with enthusiasm and with equally fervent references to the fate of the unbeliever who, it is claimed, after physical death will suffer eternal punishment in hell.

The truth of the sinner’s destination, however, seems to me to be challenged by the words “should not perish”. The Pope may be right after all.

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