Hell does not exist, Pope Francis was quoted as saying on Wednesday in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. There is, he explained, only “a disappearance of the sinful soul.” In other words: Death of the body means the soul’s annihilation, at least for the unsaved, and the materialist view of death is fundamentally correct. That’s hard to reconcile with the traditional Christian teaching that the soul is immortal and that it will be reunited with an incorruptible body at the Last Judgment.
Of course, if it’s true that no one goes to hell, another reason could be that everyone goes to heaven. Posed as a possibility, that proposition, though contested, does have a place in Catholic theology. Its leading proponent is Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–88), honored by popes including his friend Joseph Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI. The argument for universal salvation begins with the recognition that no one can presume to know God’s final judgment of anyone. While we cannot dismiss the possibility or perhaps even probability that many are damned to hell, an eternal existence in which they are deprived of God’s presence, we have a duty to hope that “all may be saved” (see 1 Tim. 2:4), as Balthasar suggests in the title of his most famous book.
But the terse remark attributed to Francis earlier this week is nothing like that. If he believes that the souls of the unsaved simply vanish at death, he should elaborate. Does he have an argument? From reason? From Scripture? From observation of nature? Resorting to what has become a customary practice for the director of the Holy See Press Office, Greg Burke said that the interview in La Republicca was not “a faithful transcript.” That is, he cast doubt on the accuracy of the language attributed to the pope but wouldn’t deny — or confirm — that the substance of what Francis told the interviewer, Eugenio Scalfari, lined up with the words that Scalfari put inside quotation marks. (In fairness to Burke: He wasn’t there with Francis and Scalfari, so how would he know?)
This is Francis’s fifth interview with Scalfari and his sixth public exchange, if you count a back-and-forth between them in the pages of La Repubblica shortly after Bergoglio’s election in 2013. Scalfari, 93, co-founded La Repubblica as a left-wing newspaper in 1976. Imagine an Italian approximation of the Guardian. Scalfari is the pope’s most famous public atheist interlocutor. It’s a role that Marcello Pera and then Piergiorgio Odifreddi filled admirably in the case of Pope Benedict.
Scalfari doesn’t record his interviews with Francis. The two converse, and then Scalfari goes to his keyboard and writes up his impressions. He paraphrases here and there but also types out whole paragraphs that he presents as direct quotes from Francis’s part of their dialogue.
In every interview published so far, Scalfari has attributed to Francis at least one comment that turned out to be sensational. In most cases Vatican spokesmen have pointed to Scalfari’s free-style journalism to suggest that he’s not a reliable transcriber of Francis’s words. No such complaint from Francis, however. He keeps granting interviews to Scalfari. It’s unlikely that he would do that if he thought that Scalfari was misrepresenting him or using the interviews to promote a message he disagreed with.
Many conservative Catholics note that Francis’s collaboration with Scalfari confuses the faithful and the world and distracts from the Church’s message. It also diminishes papal prestige, the kind of personal authority that the pious in generations past would naturally credit to the Holy Father’s every utterance. Many Catholics see the latest headline about the pope and, out of habit, rush to organize their thoughts into strong opinions and to wax indignant — against his adversaries, or against his alleged heterodoxy, or against both — although the constant drama wears thinner by the day. Still, some good will come of it if the spectacle of Francis’s undisciplined approach to his exercise of the Petrine Office leads people in the pews to a deeper appreciation for how broad is the range of human activity in which the bishop of Rome, perhaps like your local bishop, is plainly fallible.
A detailed picture of what happens to the human soul at death eludes most of us, notwithstanding the broad outline that we might sketch on the basis of information we glean from Scripture, the Catechism, reports of mystics and saints, or our own experience with the dying. The Four Last Things are as they are. Nothing that the pope thinks or says can change them. No more than you or I does he have power to call them into or out of existence.
Here, for those keeping score, is a rundown of Francis’s five interviews with Scalfari in La Repubblica since the fall of 2013:
• Published October 1, 2013
Headline-grabbing controversial quote: Proselytism, or the endeavor to convert people to the Catholic faith, is “solemn nonsense.”
Vatican response: Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, says that the interview is “reliable on a general level but not on the level of each individual point analyzed.”
• Published July 13, 2014
Headline-grabbing controversial quote: About “2 percent” of Catholic priests are pedophiles.
Bonus quote: Asked whether the requirement of celibacy for priests in the Roman rite might ever be lifted, he answers, ambiguously, “It will take time, but there are solutions and we will find them.”
Vatican response: Although Lombardi says that the “overall theme of the article captures the spirit of the conversation between the Holy Father and Mr. Scalfari,” he cautions journalists to exercise caution in treating the interview as representative of the pope’s thoughts.
• Published November 1, 2015
Headline-grabbing controversial quote: All those who are divorced and remarried while their former spouses are still living “will be admitted” to the sacraments, including the Eucharist, if that’s what they want. (That move would overturn longstanding practice and affect the Church’s understanding not only of matrimony but also of the Eucharist.)
Vatican response: Lombardi says that “it is clear that what is being reported by [Scalfari] in the latest article about the divorced and remarried is in no way reliable and cannot be considered as the pope’s thinking.” (Francis himself affirmed that thinking in a letter to Argentine bishops the following September.)
• Published November 11, 2016
Headline-grabbing controversial quote: “It is the Communists who think like Christians,” and economic inequality “is the greatest evil that exists in the world.” (The first sentiment was echoed last month by Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, when he said that “at this moment, those who best realize the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.”)
Vatican response: None that I could find.
• Published March 28, 2018
Headline-grabbing controversial quote: “There is no hell, there is a disappearance of the sinful soul” at death.
Vatican response: Greg Burke, director of the the Holy See Press Office, speaks of a “private meeting” between Francis and Scalfari and describes the resulting newspaper article as “the fruit” of Scalfari’s “own reconstruction.” Burke says that Francis’s words “are not cited textually” in the published interview and that it “should not be considered as a faithful transcript of the Holy Father’s words.”