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Vatican distances itself from claim that Pope doesn’t believe in hell

Pope Francis delivers his blessing during a general audience (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Pope says Hell doesn’t exist – this was the shock news in an Italian newspaper on Thursday.

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.

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.

A statement from the Vatican press office Thursday afternoon said: “The Holy Father Francis recently received the founder of the newspaper La Repubblica in a private meeting on the occasion of Easter, without however giving him any interviews. What is reported by the author in today’s article is the result of his reconstruction, in which the textual words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted. No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”

Paragraph 1035 of the Catholic Catechism states: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.”

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.

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.

Luis Badilla Morales, director of the semi-official Vatican news aggregator, Il Sismografo, said in 2016 that it is “very clear” that the quotes attributed to Francis “don’t belong to the language he uses and of course to his theological training, especially when referring to the words of Jesus”.