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Pope Francis has caused chaos in the Vatican through his recent interview Franco Origlia/Getty pictures
The Vatican communications department has been functioning overtime the past few weeks. First, the chief interactions secretary, Dario Vigano, resigned under pressure after the Vatican admitted to doctoring a photo of a letter native Pope Benedict XVI to bolster Francis’s conservative credentials. Now, lock scrambling come contextualize a comment attributed come Pope Francis by one Italian journalist at the newspaper La Repubblica that hell does not exist.

Speaking to the newspaper’s founder, journalist and atheist Eugenio Scalfari, Francis to be quoted together saying of those that die in a state of mortal sin: “They room not punished. Those that repent achieve God’s forgiveness and also take your place among the ranks of those who contemplate him, yet those who carry out not repent and cannot it is in forgiven disappear. A hell no exist, the loss of sinning souls exists.”

If the Pope undoubtedly said those words, the results would be catastrophic because that the Catholic Church, which — follow to its very own catechism — “affirms the teaching of hell and also its eternity,” consisting of “eternal fire,” although it stresses the the “The chief penalty of hell is eternal separation from God.”

The Vatican instantly critiqued Scalfari’s account, saying the estimates in the article were not “a faithful warrior of the holy Father’s words.”

This is not the an initial time Scalfari — one avowed atheist — has actually published a controversial declare attributed come Pope Francis, just for the Vatican come walk the back. Francis’s continued relationship v Scalfari, regardless of these controversies, says as much around Francis’s unorthodox strategy to the media together it does about Francis’s theology.

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Scalfari and also the pope have actually a longstanding history

Scalfari — a longtime friend and also intellectual sparring partner of Pope Francis — has commonly boasted the his unorthodox interviewing methods. Scalfari neither offers a recording device, no one does he take it notes. Rather, that reconstructs his conversations through the pope indigenous memory, something the has obtained Scalfari into warm water with the Vatican in the past.

In a 2013 interview through Scalfari, the pope dismissed do the efforts at converting non-Catholics come the confidence as “solemn nonsense” and also said “there is no Catholic God.” The Vatican consequently quietly gotten rid of the text of the interview from its website, where it generally features all papal interviews. In 2015, Scalfari reported the Francis wondered aloud if sinners would certainly be “annihilated” rather of damned. (The Vatican denied the quotes should be thought about “official texts,” due to the fact that they had actually not been recorded, and also did not feature the exchange on your website.)

In a separate conversation Scalfari attributed come Francis the idea that “all the divorced who asked , would be admitted,” a statement i beg your pardon the Vatican promptly refuse had ever before been made. (Francis has long quietly supported for divorced and remarried Catholics to have the ability to receive the Eucharist, miscellaneous Church teaching right now forbids).

Pope Francis’s partnership with Scalfari has made life complicated for the Vatican communications department

The inquiry of whether Francis go indeed imply there is no hell is, therefore, low grade to a larger question: Why does Francis repeatedly engage in interviews through Scalfari, only to later on say Scalfari misquotes his words? Catholic columnist Ross Douthat, who To readjust the Church: Pope Francis and the Future the Catholicism came the end this week, interprets Francis’s friendship through Scalfari as a kind of “back door” form of info dissemination. By speak to Scalfari, Douthat notes, Francis can check out (and, to an extent, “leak” to the public) unorthodox theological concepts while preserving a veneer of plausible deniability.

“Francis,” Douthat writes, “ an advantage in this sort of deliberately unreliable communication — whether as a type of freewheeling dialogue with a nonbeliever, a way to communicate very informally come supporters, or just a means to speak casually there is no the strictures that an really interview transcript would certainly impose.”

Certainly, offered Scalfari’s track record, it’s unlikely Francis was unaware the the likelihood that he would be quoted (or misquoted) on perceptible topics. His choice to it is in interviewed by Scalfari, therefore, is as far-reaching as the precise content the the indigenous the 2 of them exchanged.

Francis’s attributed views aren’t completely unheard of among Christians

Francis’s report dismissal of hell ties right into a broader theme of his pontificate: celebrate God’s mercy over God’s judgment. And, theologically speaking, Francis’s meeting views space not totally out of left field. In ~ the more comprehensive Christian tradition, theologians have responded to the idea of hell in a variety of ways beyond the classic view the a “lake the fire.” alternate interpretations incorporate universal reconciliation (the idea the all souls are at some point saved) or annihilationism (the idea that unredeemed souls cease to exist).

In the early on church the the second, third, and fourth centuries CE — a time the dynamic pundit inquiry in i m sorry church doctrine had not yet got to a codified form — theologians frequently embraced different approaches. Origen that Alexandria and also Gregory the Nyssa subscribed come reconciliationist views, for example, while Irenaeus the Lyons took a stance that might be considered annihilationist. In the fifth century, Christian doctrines of hell became more streamlined, in component due come the monumental influence of St. Augustine that Hippo. But, from the mid-19th century onward, modern theologians have actually been revisiting the idea of a hell the doesn’t look favor something out of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement.”

In the 20th century alone, theologians as vital as the Reformed Swiss theologian karl Barth to Lutheran existentialist Paul Tillich come the evangelical Clark Pinnock have explored various models that hell and also damnation that challenge or transcend the well-known notion that “eternal fire and also brimstone.”

Still, many of these modern theologians largely come from good news traditions, which lack the exact same formalized structure and codified doctrine together the Catholic Church. That said, some recent major Catholic thinkers have actually indeed pushed back on the idea the hell as popularly understood. In the 1980s, Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, because that example, flirted v reconciliation in his publication Dare we Hope that All men Be Saved?, while controversial Catholic theologian Hans Kung’s 1984 Eternal Life suggested hell need to be understood only together the lack of God, not physical torment. Yet the formal nature that the Catholic catechism has actually made any official papal pronouncement ~ above the matter tricky.

Francis’s “doublespeak” puts that in a precarious spot

But by participating in a type of bait and also switch — placing forth possibly heretical ideas, then formally denying them — Francis leaves himself open to the fee of disingenuousness. He’s able to signal sympathy for progressive theology, yet does not have actually the responsibility of comment to conservative or officially advocating for doctrinal change. That a canny political move, but one that destabilizes the nature that the Catholic Church as a centralized, official body: the an extremely thing the sets the Catholic Church personal from other Western Christian denominations.

As I’ve written previously, Francis’s distaste because that the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, and his willingness to interact the secular media to obtain his blog post across, can be both a benefit and a drawback to his papacy. Sometimes, his willingness to “go rogue” have the right to be effective. His words to LGBTQ individuals, because that example, as soon as he inquiry “who am i to judge?” controlled to offer comfort to people in require without difficult official Church doctrine.

But in this case, Francis may have actually gone too much in riling his conservative movie critics while directly challenging church orthodoxy.

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When the Vatican’s systems to the growing controversy has to be to refuse — when again — Francis and Scalfari’s exchange, Francis’s constant reliance on Scalfari as a potential mouthpiece for heterodox thought provides each refusal a tiny less plausible.