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Unless I shaped up, was a good boy, and cleaned my teeth twice daily, I was doomed to burn in the fires of hell — and eternally, at that.
Eventually I decided there was quite enough hell on earth — sitting uni exams for example — and it was unlikely God was a crazed sadist, or meant to punish us twice. (Even if we were wobbly Presbyterian).
But once you’ve been touched by the fear of brimstone, worries nag. A preachy voice in the back of the mind whispers: "Guilty as charged, laddie. You’re going to cop it!"
All this supports the Jesuit’s maxim: "Give me the child for the first seven years and I’ll give you the man."
So it was with some relief that I read what is the most astonishingly under-reported quote of the decade. It came from Pope Francis. His Holiness said he doesn’t believe in hell.
I repeat. The Holy Father, the Supreme Pontiff, the infallible definer of Catholic doctrine, said nope, he doesn’t believe in hell.
That thud you just heard must be the sound of a hundred cardinals fainting.
The Pope’s thoughts were published a few days ago in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Discussing people who die in mortal sin, Pope Francis said: "They are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and [they] take their place amongst those who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven, disappear. A hell doesn’t exist, (my italics) the disappearance of sinning souls exists."
For nearly two millennia, hell, and the Catholic church’s ability to define hell’s victims, has been central to both Catholicism’s faith and its power. This was used as pitilessly for religious enforcement, as officers shooting deserters to encourage bravery. While mainstream Protestant religions have modified their concepts, Christianity’s largest faith, containing 1.1 billion believers, has stuck with the basics of heaven and hell as reward or punishment.
Vatican spin-doctors were quickly on the job with La Repubblica. They said its interview with the newspaper’s founder Eugenia Scalfari wasn’t meant to be an actual "interview."
Fortunately for the Vatican conservatives, Scalfari is an atheist, and attackable. He is 93 years old and doesn’t always take notes — saying they’re not essential to knowing the truth of a conversation. (Actually, he’s correct, if unwise).But "no notes" gave the Vatican’s PR types the opportunity to say, Scalfari’s story was "the fruit of [his] reconstruction" and "not a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father".
What was telling, were the things the Vatican spinners didn’t say. They didn’t deny such a conversation took place.
They didn’t claim the reporting was outright lies. They didn’t release a statement from Francis saying yes of course hell exists, and Scalfari is on his way there. (They did, however, have the Pope say Satan is real).
Pope Francis has history in using Eugenia Scalfari to float his thinking. In 2011 Scalfari reported Francis saying converting people to Catholicism was arrogance, because there is no particular Catholic god. Two years later, Scalfari wrote that Francis thought divorcees should be allowed communion. After another interview, Scalfari remarked on Francis wondering if sinners were simply "annihilated" rather than damned.
The pattern with Scalfari’s stories was they’d appear, then the Vatican would bat them sideways. But if Scalfari is unreliable, why does Pope Francis persist with seeing him and giving him interviews? (The conclusion is obvious — he trusts him).
The weakness of the Vatican response to La Repubblica’s "no hell" story angered church conservatives — including the powerful American cardinal Raymond Burke, who raged that the Holy See’s "denial" wasn’t nearly strong enough.
"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," he fumed.
"It does not say that the erroneous and even heretical ideas express by these words are not shared by the Pope, and that the Pope repudiates these ideas."
The Catholic Church seems headed towards the mother of battles. You can impeach a Donald, but not a pope.
We may yet be asking (to misuse the ancient line): "Is the Pope a Catholic?"
- John Lapsley is an Arrowtown writer.