Does Pope Francis believe in hell? Eugenio Scalfari thinks not.
Should we trust this 93-year-old atheist, founder of Italy’s center-left daily La Repubblica? The Vatican tells us that his quotations of the pope are based on memory and not necessarily what the pope actually said. But the Vatican does not state clearly that “Pope Francis affirms the teaching in the Catechism that…” We are left guessing.
Some say if there’s no hell, what’s the point? Who needs Jesus and the Church if there’s no hell to be saved from?
I’ve heard people in 12-Step recovery programs say that religion is for people who fear hell, but spirituality is for people who have already been there and have no more fear. The saying doesn’t exactly put organized religion in a good light. The inference is that organized religion promotes a lower, less mature stage in human development. We religious people (including those of us who believe in the reality of hell) should think long and hard about this.
I suppose fear as a motivator has its place. Jesus seems to have used it – to the extent that we can discern what his words really mean. But Jesus certainly talked a lot more about how ridiculously merciful his father is.
It’s possible that Pope Francis doesn’t believe in hell, but I suspect he does. He certainly believes in the Devil and talks about him a good deal.
Maybe Francis thinks a bit of doubt and confusion is a good thing. He seems to think that traditional Catholics overly certain of church teachings are too rigid and even idolatrous in their attachment to abstract truths.
Maybe Francis’s intuitions gravitate so much toward divine mercy and forgiveness that he’s simply turned off by talk of fire and brimstone. It’s hard to know what a Jesuit is thinking.
There is a long spiritual tradition in the church that is so taken by the love of God that the reality of hell fades into unimportance.
The sixteenth-century Carmelite mystic John of the Cross, for example, wrote the text below, as conveyed to us in English verse by Thomas Walsh. St. John doesn’t so much say there is no hell as that he has no interest in it. The text has made a deep impression on me. I wonder if Pope Francis would like it. I suspect he would.
No me mueve
St. John of the Cross
I am not moved to love you, O my Lord,
by any longing for your promised land;
nor is the fear of hell my sure command
to cease from my transgressing deed or word.
’Tis you yourself who move me— your blood poured
upon the cross from nailed foot and hand,
and all the wounds that did your body brand,
and all your shame and bitter death’s award.
Yea, to my heart am I so deeply stirred
that I would love you, were no heaven on high
that I would fear, were hell a tale absurd.
Such my desire, all questioning grows vain;
though hope deny me hope, I still should sigh,
and as my love is now, it should remain.
– English versification by Thomas Walsh (1875-1928)