No hell be­low us, above us only sky


THE POPE DID NOT say there is no Heaven. There is noth­ing in­tel­lec­tu­ally em­bar­rass­ing about the no­tion that good peo­ple go to Heaven when they die. It sounds a bit like a wish-ful­fil­ment fan­tasy to out­siders, but it’s the sort of thing a lov­ing and all-pow­er­ful god might pro­vide for his crea­tures. How­ever, the Pope did say there is no Hell.

As soon as he said it, the Vat­i­can’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions depart­ment mo­bi­lized to deny that he had said it, as they have done on sev­eral pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sions when the Pope went off the rails. But of course he said it, and the rea­son why is ob­vi­ous.

It is very hard for a welle­d­u­cated per­son of mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties to be­lieve that a lov­ing god would con­demn any of the hu­man be­ings he cre­ated to an eter­nity of phys­i­cal tor­ture and men­tal an­guish. That is not what lov­ing hu­man fa­thers do, even to chil­dren who dis­obey them, so the tra­di­tional no­tion of Hell is a per­ma­nent prob­lem for many Catholic the­olo­gians.

If you do not live in­side the bub­ble of faith, it’s not a prob­lem at all: no Heaven, no Hell, no God, just us un­der an empty sky. But peo­ple of faith like Pope Fran­cis, who want to be­lieve that ‘God is love,’ strug­gle with the con­cept of Hell – and peo­ple like Eu­ge­nio Scal­fari, who grew up in the faith but left it long ago, still sym­pa­thize with their strug­gle.

Scal­fari, now 93 years old, was the founder of the highly re­spected Ital­ian news­pa­per La Repub­blica, and is still a prac­tic­ing jour­nal­ist. He is an avowed athe­ist, but has been meet­ing Pope Fran­cis in pri­vate for years for long con­ver­sa­tions on re­li­gious mat­ters. And Scal­fari is an un­usual jour­nal­ist, in that he does not record his in­ter­views or even take notes. In­stead, he “re­con­structs” the con­ver­sa­tion from mem­ory.

As some­body who has done thou­sands of in­ter­views (and does record them or take notes), I envy Scal­fari the free­dom he en­joys to par­tic­i­pate fully in the con­ver­sa­tion. I doubt that he can al­ways re­mem­ber the in­ter­vie­wee’s words ver­ba­tim, but I am sure that he is rarely mis­taken about the mean­ing of what was said. And I sus­pect that it is ex­actly the fact that Scal­fari does not pro­vide an un­de­ni­able ver­ba­tim text that draws Pope Fran­cis to him.

The re­cent ex­change be­tween the two men, as re­counted by Scal­fari in Repub­blica last week, be­gan with the jour­nal­ist ask­ing Fran­cis where “bad souls” go and how they are pun­ished. Ac­cord­ing to Scal­fari’s ac­count, Fran­cis replied as fol­lows:

“Souls are not pun­ished. Those who re­pent ob­tain God’s for­give­ness and go among the ranks of those who con­tem­plate him, but those who do not re­pent and can­not be for­given dis­ap­pear. There is no hell – there is the dis­ap­pear­ance of sin­ful souls.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is heresy. The Cat­e­chism of the Catholic Church (ccc 1035) states that “Im­me­di­ately af­ter death the souls of those who die in a state of mor­tal sin de­scend into hell, where they suf­fer the pun­ish­ments of hell, ‘eter­nal fire’.” The Cat­e­chism does go on to say that “The chief pun­ish­ment of hell is eter­nal sep­a­ra­tion from God,” but there’s no get­ting around the fact that of­fi­cial doc­trine says they are la­ment­ing this sad sep­a­ra­tion from God while also burn­ing in eter­nal fire. Which prob­a­bly hurts quite a lot.

Pope Fran­cis is clearly un­com­fort­able with this idea of God as the Eter­nal Tor­turer, and much prefers the no­tion that the souls of those “who do not re­pent and can­not be for­given” will sim­ply be de­stroyed. “An­ni­hi­la­tion­ism” is the for­mal name for this ar­gu­ment, and it crops up quite of­ten in mod­ern the­o­log­i­cal spec­u­la­tion – but un­til and un­less the Catholic Church changes its for­mal doc­trine, it is still heresy.

Pope Fran­cis is a prac­ti­cal man, and he chooses his bat­tles care­fully. Chang­ing Catholic doc­trine on Hell would be a long bat­tle that would con­sume most of the en­ergy within the Church that he would like to de­vote to other, more

ur­gent changes. Yet he still can­not re­sist mak­ing his true views known (in a de­ni­able way) by hav­ing these oc­ca­sional con­ver­sa­tions with Eu­ge­nio Scal­fari.

Other top­ics he has raised in the same way in­clude the “solemn non­sense” of try­ing to con­vert non-Catholic Chris­tians to Catholi­cism (2013) – “there is no Catholic God,” Fran­cis on that oc­ca­sion – and the in­jus­tice of ex­clud­ing di­vorced and re­mar­ried Catholics from full par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Church (2015).

Scal­fari doesn’t mind the fact that the Vat­i­can sub­se­quently de­nies what he re­ported the Pope said, and that Fran­cis him­self tac­itly goes along with that de­nial. It’s a game that both men play, and the ac­cu­racy of Scal­fari’s re­ports is am­ply demon­strated by the fact that Fran­cis keeps giv­ing him more in­ter­views de­spite his al­leged ‘mis­re­port­ing’ of pre­vi­ous ones.

But it’s hard not to won­der what the two of them think this game is achiev­ing.

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