Last week, Pope Francis made international headlines after it was reported that he told an “interviewer” that he doesn’t believe that unbelievers spend eternity in hell. Instead, he says that he simply believes they cease to exist.
He was quoted as saying: “They are not punished, those who repent obtain the forgiveness of God and enter the rank of souls who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”
If this is what he actually said, than it would be a major departure from traditional Catholic teaching about the afterlife.
In the wake of the comments, many outlets have reported that the Vatican has denied the pope made the comments at all. But that might not actually be the case. The Catholic Herald said that the Vatican “distances” itself from the comments. The BBC ran a headline that seems to fabricate a Vatican quote “Vatican: Pope did not say there is no hell.” The site FaithWire called it “Fake News.”
But what did the Vatican’s “Fiery Response” actually say?
Following the publication of the interview, they released a statement explaining, “The Holy Father Francis recently received the founder of the newspaper La Repubblica in a private meeting on the occasion of Easter, without however giving him any interviews. What is reported by the author in today’s article [in La Repubblica] is the result of his reconstruction, in which the textual words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted. No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”
First off, that’s not really a denial; it simply states that it may or may not be what Pope Francis actually said. And, it ignores another relevant piece of information. The interviewer, La Repubblica founder Eugenio Scalfari, is known for not recording interviews, and then rewriting them based on his recollection of them. But despite the Vatican’s statement that implied that the publication of the interview was a surprise to them, the pope knew Scalfari reconstructs conversations—because he and Scalfari are close friends, and Scalfari has reconstructed parts of their conversations before as interviews. In fact, Scalfari and the pope have had these kinds of sort-of on-the-record conversations five times in recent years, several of which prompted the Vatican to release similar statements, (that is, despite the Vatican saying “without however giving him any interviews” in their recent statement).
The pope knew the nature of the conversation and knew how Scalfari wrote.
If the Vatican is so concerned about the pope’s words being twisted by Scalfari (as they imply in the statement), then why does he keep meeting with him for informal interviews? And if the pope didn’t say, “There is no hell,” why doesn’t the Vatican simply say that? After all, the pope has spoken about a literal eternal hell numerous times in the past.
What did the pope actually say in his conversation with Scalfari? Does he believe in hell or not? By attempting to clarify his statements, the Vatican has done nothing but cause more confusion.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.