Pope Francis: Hell-denier? No.

So the Pope has a friend — a rather colorful friend — with whom he likes to chat periodically.  This friend, unfortunately, is also a journalist.  A 94-year-old journalist who prides himself on never recording conversations or taking notes, and instead “reconstructs” conversations after the fact.  Which all may have been well and good when he was in his 40’s.  But half a century later, it’s probably time for him to hang up this particular parlor trick.

Lest he get someone in trouble.

I don’t know what the Holy Father actually said in his most recent conversation with Eugenio Scalfari.  But Scalfari’s reconstruction has the Supreme Roman Pontiff strongly implying that hell does not in fact exist — that the souls of the damned simply cease to exist at the moment of death.

This, as one might imagine, is causing quite a few headaches at the Vatican. I have no idea what the Holy Father said in this particular conversation, and I have no interest in trying to figure it out.  I would much rather stick with what I know, based on multiple on-the-record, actual, verifiable, don’t-need-to-be-walked-back-by-the-Vatican statements that Pope Francis has made over the years.

And that is this:  The Holy Father does indeed believe what the Church teaches about death, judgment, heaven and hell.  What’s more, he has made some pretty profound statements on the subject.

I was particularly struck by his answer, a few years ago, to a young woman who asked him how Hell could exist if God forgives everyone.  He acknowledged it was a good question, told her about the fall of Satan, and then said, “He wanted God’s place.  And God wanted to forgive him, but he said, ‘I don’t need your forgiveness. I am good enough!'”

He went on to say “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.”

This is the Church’s teaching, beautifully stated.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that hell is the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” (CCC 1033)

God created us for Himself.  But we need to freely choose him, or our union with him would be meaningless — a form of captivity.  If we are free, our options must be meaningful, not just illusions.  And in this life, we can choose to follow him or not.

Hell is quite simply the consequence of choosing “not God” in this life.  It’s not a “place” we can locate on a map, any more than Heaven is.  It is a state of being. I have no idea what it is like, except that it is utterly separated from God.  God is the source of all good.  God is compassion.  God is love. God is beauty. That lack of beauty, love and compassion and every other good, is Hell.

It couldn’t be pleasant.

God doesn’t “send” us to Hell.  We choose it, by the way we live our lives.  I don’t know what that final scene looks like, but I have often heard speculation that, to the condemned soul, the possibility of spending eternity beholding the face of the God they rejected is so painful that they themselves, in that moment, choose exclusion from His presence. God didn’t choose it for them.  They did.

I find that oddly comforting.

I have sometimes been amused to find that some of the same people who condemn the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality in youth sports, also subscribe to an “everybody goes to Heaven” theology of the afterlife.  Do we really believe that God is the “everybody gets a trophy”-guy?  That he put us here on this earth with no goal beyond doing whatever we like for the better part of a century or so?  And that, at the end, it makes no difference how we have behaved, or whether we lived his love or not?    That our “reward” is actually meaningless?  That all — good and evil and in-between — are equally rewarded for how we used our time here?

I don’t believe that.  I believe he placed us here with a goal, and that goal is him.  And we either make it or we don’t.

Fortunately, I have it on pretty good authority that Pope Francis believes the same thing.

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA