A few weeks ago, the beginning of Holy Week, I was browsing news sites on the Internet and was greeted with a large headline that read “Pope Declares No Hell!” I am sure that many of you saw that headline also or at least heard about it. My first thought was “great, its not like there isn’t anything else going on this week,” but that was immediately followed by the assumption that something was just not right about that headline. What did not further help matters was that the Vatican Press Office did not do much to forcefully denounce the story line as false.
Last month the Holy Father began the sixth year of his pontificate and, even with five years behind us, many people still have not gotten used to his style of speaking which is very different from his two most recent predecessors, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who were both known for their precision when speaking. That is not exactly Pope Francis’s style. He is much more “off the cuff” which can have its challenges. Some people love his style, some do not, but whether you do or do not, this is who Pope Francis is.
The “Hell controversy” stemmed from a conversation with the 93-year-old editor of an Italian journal. This editor is notoriously known for not taking any notes when interviewing someone. The story was based on his own recollections of what the Holy Father supposedly said. This editor is also known for liking to “stir the pot,” you might say. Do I think that Pope Francis denied the existence of hell? No. I do not believe that for one minute. Pope Francis has been unrelenting in his belief that the devil does truly exist and that the devil is actively engaged against the work of the church and good in the world. The Holy Father reaffirms this in his most recent apostolic exhortation that was released April 9th entitled Gaudete et exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad) on the call to holiness. If there is a devil then there must be a hell.
When a pope speaks, no one should stand in expectation that he might say something that alters the Church’s theological tradition. Yes, the pope can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals, and the popes have done so or they have spoken authoritatively on other matters not considered infallible but still important. When they do, it generally occurs after consultation with members of the College of Bishops, it is done in very specific terms and in specific Papal documents, namely in what are called apostolic constitutions or encyclicals, and it is not done in private conversations with haphazard journalists.
If you want to learn more about what the Church teaches definitively on the existence of hell, go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1033-1037. If you want to know more about what Pope Francis is saying and teaching, visit the website of the Holy See at www.vatican.va and you will find his writings, homilies, prayers, and speeches. Be careful of what you read in the media, secular and “religious;” some of it is true, some of it is not, and some of it is a mix of the two. The media loves a headline…and so do most readers. Remember to pray daily for our Holy Father as he has an unenviable duty. God bless you!