It is sometimes said of a rare occurrence that Hell would freeze over if that happened. Well, they might have to break out the mittens and scarves in Hades because an extremely rare occurrence has just happened — Hell itself has been in the secular news of late — not once, but twice.
During Holy Week, it was reported by 93-year-old Italian journalist and atheist Eugenio Scalfari that Pope Francis told him during a private meeting that Hell did not exist and that the souls of those who die unrepentant in mortal sin simply disappear.
Also in the news was Australian rugby player Israel Folau who, on Instagram, referenced a Hell that he thinks very much does exist. The many-faceted controversy that ensued, around freedom of religion and of speech on the one hand, and sensitivity towards the vulnerable and Folau’s responsibilities as a professional sportsperson on the other, is still playing out.
But the former controversy seems to have died down. After Scalfari’s report came out, the Vatican was quick to note that this was a “reconstruction” by the journalist and could not be considered a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father and that the private meeting did not constitute an “interview”.
It is well known that Scalfari does not use a recorder or a notebook but writes based on his recollections of what people said. An Italian priest, Fr Mauro Leonardi, has written that when Pope Francis is with his old friend Scalfari, he is Jorge Mario, not Francis and his lack of a public correction of Scalfari is because “being friends isn’t about proselytism, but finding common ground . . .”.
In case Catholics are fretful about this, it should be noted that Pope Francis has been vocal previously on the subjects of Hell and the devil. For instance, in 2015, answering a question from a young person in a Rome parish, Francis said: “This is Hell: It is telling God, ‘You take care of yourself because I’ll take care of myself.’ They don’t send you to Hell, you go there because you choose to be there. Hell is wanting to be distant from God because I do not want God’s love. This is Hell.”
Francis also devoted a significant chunk of his latest apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate to spiritual combat against the devil, “a personal being who assails us”.
It has been noted that such mention of Christian beliefs in secular forums are a teaching moment for the Church, a chance for it to present and explain these matters in the public square.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster took up the challenge and was very clear — it is standard Catholic teaching that “the existence [of Hell] is a straightforward consequence of our freedom of choice”.
“All the Catholic teaching says is that if a person makes a final, deliberate, irrevocable decision to reject any notion, any response, any willingness to be open to God, that’s a definitive decision that separates them from God.”
Cardinal Nichols was quick to add that “there’s nowhere in Catholic teaching that says any one person is in Hell. St Augustine had the wonderful expression of the man committing suicide. ‘Between the bridge and the water, the mercy of God can get in’”.
Writing in 2015 in a foreword to an English translation of a book by Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, US Bishop Robert Barron wrote that virtually all the Christian fathers reject the idea that Hell was created by God.
Bishop Barron noted that Balthasar cited C.S. Lewis, “who famously argued that the door to Hell is locked from the inside by those who, from the bottom of their hearts, want to be left alone”.
The book dealt with the controversial question of whether we may hope that Hell might be empty of human beings. While noting that all humans stand under the divine judgement, Balthasar argued the case for the affirmative. But that is a discussion for another editorial, another day.
In the meantime, it can be observed that we humans are also capable of creating “Hells” here on earth —the dreadful recent chemical attack in Syria (whoever the perpetrator may have been) being but one of many awful examples.