A week ago today, Italian journalist and avowed atheist Eugenio Scalfari published an article containing notes from a new interview with Pope Francis. Although the article provoked some reactions in the Italian press, the rest of the world has been somewhat slow to register the publication and what it contains: Giuseppe Nardi reported on Scalfari's article on the 18th, and The Remnant blog picked up the story yesterday.
This uncharacteristic sluggishness in reporting is not very surprising, as Scalfari's already dubious reputation among Catholics was irreparably damaged after the publication of similar notes from an interview last Summer which proved to be based, not on the actual words of the Pope, but on the 90 year-old's memory of the meeting. As Vatican spokesman Fr. Frederico Lombardi explained shortly after their appearance in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica: "Individual expressions that were used and the manner in which they have been reported cannot be attributed to the Pope." It seems that this démenti was enough to brand-mark Scalfari as an unreliable source in the minds of the Catholic faithful and avert the brewing scandal.
In a move which surprised those following the story, however, the Vatican decided to publish the Scalfari interviews, both in L'Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Holy See, and on the Vatican's website, giving them the appearance of being a part of Pope Francis' personal magisterium. This impression was confirmed when the Vatican publishing house Libreria Editrice Vaticana published them as part of a collection of "officially recognized" interviews. Scalfari's text - in all its mind-numbing, populist, social justice glory ('Youth unemployment is among the worst evils plaguing the world') - was not redacted before re-publication, indicating that the Vatican saw no need to separate Scalfari's apparently faulty attribution from Pope Francis' actual words. Thus, if Pope Francis doesn't endorse Scalfari's account of the interviews, he has a funny way of showing it.
This brings us to the new interview. As The Remnant reported yesterday, Scalfari relates the following exchange as having taken place between himself and Pope Francis while discussing the fate of souls who die unreconciled with God:
What happens to that lost soul? Will it be punished? And how? The response of Francis is distinct and clear: there is no punishment, but the destruction [annihilation] of that soul. All the others will participate in the beatitude of living in the presence of the Father. The souls that are destroyed will not take part in that banquet; with the death of the body their journey is finished. And this is the motivation of the Church’s missionary activity: to save the lost. And it is also the reason why Francis is a Jesuit to the end.
In other words, according to Scalfari, the Pope is saying that souls who die in a state of unrepentant mortal sin are simply destroyed, annihilated, snuffed out when they die. And it's the most blatantly heretical thing this writer can recall ever being attributed to Pope Francis outside of sedevacantist circles.
When I first encountered the story last week, I admit that I didn't give it much credence. Call me naive, but I simply could not imagine the Pope saying something so obviously heretical out loud. Surely, I thought, this has to be an expression of the secret desire of the atheist Scalfari, i.e. that he will simply enter the Great Void upon death, and not be called to give an account of his deeds before the throne of Almighty God and sentenced to his just reward for all eternity. Besides, it is simply not possible for a Pope - particularly a man who was a professor of theology at the Philosophical and Theological Faculty of San Miguel in Argentina - to not know official Church teaching on the perpetual suffering of those souls condemned to hell. It's a de fide dogma, taught explicitly in Sacred Scripture and defined at Lateran IV. As such, it must be held with divine and catholic faith. To deny it is heresy.
But the real reason I have difficulty with the statement is because it runs contrary to Pope Francis' modus operandi: obfuscation. This matter cannot be circumvented by fuzzy logic arguments based upon the erroneous assumptions of a faulty pastoral philosophy. There's no wiggle-room here, no liberty to conscientious objection or open theological discussion. This is not an object of free judgment, for the Magisterium has spoken clearly and consistently on this point: those who die in a state of unrepentant mortal sin suffer eternal torment in hell with the devil and his fallen angels. While he appears rather fond of deploying phrases designed to offend pious ears as a means to shock his listeners, it would be highly uncharacteristic of Pope Francis to say something so plainly without providing himself a way out, an escape hatch, some kind of cover so that he could retreat if called out on the heresy. Doctrinal ambiguity is the air his magisterium breathes; it's not in his nature to flatly contradict defined dogma.
With that being said, I'd like to see this matter pursued. Will Fr. Lombardi issue a statement of clarification? Will Pope Francis claim this interview as part of his personal magisterium? Will anyone - cardinal, bishop or priest - denounce this heresy for what it is, regardless of whether Pope Francis said it or not?
In any event, this episode should make us pause to consider a more important matter: At what point would faithful Catholics decide that a Pope has gone too far? What would it take? Would he have to renounce the mission of the Church? Would he have to malign Our Lady? Would he have to condone sacrilegious reception of the Sacraments? Would he have to deny the Holy Trinity? Would that be enough?
Apparently not, because, in one way or another, Pope Francis has already done all of those things - though with his trademark obfuscation and just enough cover to satisfy those who don't mind performing mental acrobatics to keep his statements within the ever-blurring bounds of orthodoxy. So, what would it take? I like to believe that there must be some line upon the crossing of which the Catholic faithful would rise up and, with one voice, demand the removal of the Bishop of Rome. It's not like it hasn't happened before. I suggest we identify that line very soon, because the people who elected Pope Francis are bullies, and like all bullies, they will not stop until they meet unflinching and unfailing resistance. Otherwise, we might well find that it is we who have been launched into the Great Void.