The Catholic Herald reports that there was yet another kerfuffle in Rome this week when an old atheist wrote that in a recent "one on one" with Pope Francis, he (the Pope) expressed a view not compatible with Church teaching:
Eugenio Scalfari, co-founder and first editor of Repubblica, published his latest conversation with Pope Francis in the paper today. After an introduction in which he says “I have the privilege of being his friend”, he relates their conversation on Tuesday at the Santa Marta Palace in the Vatican where Francis has lived since his election.The Vatican has distanced itself from the report, and this Scalfari does not take care to record words precisely (or at all) during his meetings:
They begin talking about the Passion and Creation, then Scalfari, well-known as an atheist, reminds the Pope about saying that good souls are admitted to the contemplation of God.
“But the bad souls?” he asks. “Where are they punished?”
“They are not punished, those who repent get God’s forgiveness and go among the ranks of the souls who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and can not therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls,” Scalfari quotes Pope Francis as saying.
However, Scalfari fails to follow up this statement, moving immediately on to a question about politics.
Eugenio Scalfari, 93, has caused controversy before when reporting on his conversations with Pope Francis. In 2014 he said that Francis had claimed that two per cent of all Catholic priests, including bishops and cardinals, were paedophiles. He has admitted after previous conversations with the Pope in 2013 and 2016 that his supposed interviews are entirely based on his memory of the conversations; he doesn’t record them or take notes.The article notes this about the annihilationist view:
The theological position that Scalfari ascribes to Francis, the annihilation of the unsaved, became popular in the 19th century with the birth of Christian sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and Christadelphians. Some 20th-century Anglican clerics who have considered the possibility of annihilation include Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple and Evangelical theologian John Stott.Don't think I knew before that the JWs and Seventh Day-ers both held that view. As to what Christadelphians believe - I've never looked into that obscure denomination at all.
Anyway, it's an idea that has considerable appeal for those who think eternal physical punishment is a bit much, especially when it comes to mortal sins of the "not respecting God enough" line. Sure, no one's going to sweat too much about your average homicidal dictator spending forever in hell, but for not attending Mass?
There are other ways to lessen the modern "that's a bit much" reaction to permanent Hell: most notably, the CS Lewis promoted line that Hell and Purgatory are one and the same, hence Hell is not permanent for anyone unless they so choose. (Although even then, he argued that the escape route closed forever once Christ returned and the world - universe, I always presumed - ended.)
I think CS Lewis's view is pretty close to that taken by Dante - certainly, this article on Dante and Purgatory suggests that he invented the idea that Purgatory was not just a place of purifying punishment, but one in which the participants themselves worked towards moral improvement:
Which all puts me in mind of the extremely pleasing The Good Place. Although the four souls the subject of that show don't sing hymns and psalms, they are all obviously working (under the guidance of Chidi) on moral self improvement, while coping with (admittedly much milder than Dante's!) forms of punishment. So, yeah, the show is completely consistent with Dante's take on things.But perhaps the most original aspect of Dante’s version of Purgatory is that the souls in Purgatory are in the process of moral change. They suffer, but not simply in order to repay a debt: they are suffering in order to become good. The consequence of this is that they willingly undergo the suffering, they understand the reasons for it, and they are acquiring the new habits of thought which will enable them to go to Heaven. For Dante, Purgatory is not only a place where you pay the debts you incurred when you sinned: it is in fact the place where you reflect on those sins, and where you change the psychological tendencies which led you to sin. This leads to extraordinary richness in the depiction of character. Whereas, in the Inferno, the sinners met by Dante tended to be fixed in the habits of thought which led them to sin, in the Purgatorio Dante faces the challenge of depicting souls who are in a process of change.It is also a place of prayer. Throughout Purgatory, hymns and psalms are sung, and prayers are said. This element in Dante’s Purgatory -- radically new in depictions of Purgatory -- is in keeping with his imagining the general tendency of the souls of Purgatory to reflect on their failings.
But even if you don't want to play around with various guesses of how Hell and Purgatory operate, you can try and double guess just how many Catholics are destined to Hell despite their clear (and rather open) sinning against the teachings of the Church. See this article: Are most Catholics in America going to Hell?
It demonstrates the ways in which modern thinking about what it means to do something with "full knowledge and deliberate consent" allows for some rubbery interpretations. This is pretty much exactly how the Church has dealt with annulments of marriage, and I think most middle of the road Catholics see that process as a pretty disingenuous way of allowing divorce and remarriage in circumstances where in centuries past, the Church would have had nothing to do with it. The problem the Church has made for itself is that it makes some liberalising concessions, but then pretends it's always been entirely consistent. (Same thing when it comes to allowing the rhythm method for contraception, but put a condom on as an extra precaution and it all becomes sinful. Yeah, sure, and presumably some are destined for Hell for that deliberate act even with their wife.)
Mind you, the matter of line drawing in morality is a tricky thing. If I criticise the Church for the way it sometimes handles it, I should criticise the secular for some of things they manage to talk themselves into as well, such as excuse making for infanticide that Peter Singer used to engage in.
Anyway, I've strayed a bit from the original topic. The Catholic Herald has a separate article up pointing out that Pope Francis has made plenty of statements - including recent ones - confirming his belief in Hell. And, rather oddly, there have also been reports over the last couple of years that demand for exorcists has risen a lot (at least in Italy) lately, and the Vatican has been happy enough for more to be trained.
So, Hell is still around, but still subject to great uncertainty. An allowance by the Church that the exact mechanism of how the afterlife works is shrouded in mystery and incapable of definitive teaching (at least beyond the basic matter that some form of Heaven and Hell exists) would be a good concession to realism, but I'm not holding my breath...