Although the number of Catholics vocal about their concerns with the pontificate of Pope Francis has grown in recent months, a strange phenomenon nevertheless continues to assert itself: a kind of cognitive dissonance in which the faithful seek to find any explanation, no matter how far-fetched, to reassure themselves that what is happening can’t really be as troubling as it seems.
As an example of this, see John Clark’s April 10 blog post at the National Catholic Register, where he tackles the question of Pope Francis’s thoughts on the existence of Hell, taken from the now-infamous conversation with Eugenio Scalfari, the nonegenarian atheist founder of Italy’s La Repubblica.
If you want to know Clark’s position on the matter, look no further than the headline: “Pope Francis Says: ‘Convert, So You Don’t End Up in Hell’.
For regular readers here, it may seem hard to believe this kind of thing is still happening. But for many faithful, Mass-going Catholics with a (typically healthy) instinct to defend the papacy, coming to grips with the fact that the source of confusion around this papacy is the pope himself can be a difficult pill to swallow.
Clark gives a brief recap of the events that happened at the end of last month, which for the sake of space I won’t reiterate here. He goes on to state, as any good Catholic would, the de fide teaching on the reality of Hell’s existence. But then Clark reaches for a conclusion that is well-intentioned but, I’m afraid to say, more than a little naive. And by that I mean that as a method of contradiction, he focuses on those things Francis has said which apparently demonstrate his orthodox belief. Clark argues that “these are actual quotes, which are weightier than, say, made-up stuff.”
“Despite all of this confusion,” writes Clark, “one should note for the record that Pope Francis has hardly been shy about discussing Hell.” He continues:
In a morning meditation Nov. 22, 2017, for instance, when confronted with the idea that the talk of Hell might frighten people, Pope Francis said: “It is the truth. Because if you… always live far away from the Lord, perhaps there is the danger, the danger of continuing in this way, far away from the Lord for eternity.” Beyond that, he has specifically warned members of the mafia, “Convert, there is still time, so that you don’t end up in hell. That is what awaits you if you continue on this path.” Of course, these are actual quotes, which are weightier than, say, made-up stuff.
Clark goes on to take the rather predictable approach of impugning the journalistic standards of Mr. Scalfari, going so far as to say, “Scalfari is a journalist in the same sense that I am an astronaut” because Clark watched the film Apollo 13 decades ago.
But this really isn’t fair. Not to Scalfari, not to the pope, and not to the rest of us, who are apparently being played by the Vatican for a bunch of patsies.
As I detailed in my own March 29 column on the topic, it’s pretty clear that games are being played with the truth — and that Scalfari, Pope Francis, and the Vatican PR team are each acting out their designated roles. When these controversial “interviews” come out, they do so each and every time under the cover of “unreliable journalistic practices” — Scalfari doesn’t record his conversations or take notes, but reconstructs them from memory. And yet they are never walked back with a direct refutation or correction from the Holy See Press Office or the Pope Himself. What we are left with, then, is both the impression that the pope has said something deeply controversial and erroneous, but also the impression that the Vatican said he didn’t. The fact that these are both impressions and not facts is part of the game — a game that leaves the global media free to report what the pope is alleged to be saying as gospel — and this leaves the faithful very uncertain about what to believe.
Clark’s approach to this issue seeks to reassure these confused Catholics, and that is a commendable desire. The problem with the pope-as-victim-of-shoddy-journalism narrative is that his chats with Scalfari are prolific, and they continue no matter the fallout. By my count, the pope has had these conversations — or at least parts of them — published on at least eight different occasions, and in almost every case, something controversial has come out of it. Here’s my list of those occasions. Feel free to double-check my work:
If the pope has a problem with how Scalfari represents him, this pattern should have stopped repeating a long time ago. And it would be good to remember that we’ve been told he is aware of what is transpiring. As Fr. Frederico Lombardi, the previous spokesman for the Holy See, told us back when that first controversial Scalfari interview dropped in 2013:
Pressed by reporters on the reliability of the direct quotations, Lombardi said during an Oct. 2 briefing that the text accurately captured the “sense” of what the pope had said, and that if Francis felt his thought had been “gravely misrepresented,” he would have said so.
On the question of Hell, Pope Francis and Scalfari have discussed it on at least three previous occasions dating back to 2015, and each time the pope’s thoughts on the matter have been represented along these same lines: the souls of the just will go to contemplation of God, but the souls of those we think of as damned will simply be annihilated.
It’s also noteworthy that the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who was pivotal through his leadership of the so-called “St. Gallen Mafia” in bringing Bergoglio to papal power, wrote something similar not long before he died:
“I nourish the hope that sooner or later everyone will be redeemed. I am a great optimist…. My hope is that God welcomes everyone, that He is merciful, and becomes ever stronger. On the other hand, naturally, I cannot imagine how people like Hitler or an assassin who abused children can be close to God. It seems easier for me to think that these sort of people are simply annihilated…”
This is a real current in the theological circles Pope Francis travels in. And it’s time that mature Catholics stopped discounting the possibility out of hand that he might believe it, and instead look at the preponderance of evidence that it may very well be true.
Clark’s strongest argument is that Pope Francis has made very clear statements about Hell in other circumstances. This is, for most people, the real head-scratcher. But this is because for most people, obvious self-contradiction is an absurdity. It is here that I would direct the reader’s attention to the section in Catholic historian Henry Sire’s new book, The Dictator Pope, that discusses Peronism as the formative influence for a young Jorge Bergoglio. Juan Perón, Sire relates, was a master of saying one thing to one audience and something completely contrary to another – always telling everyone what they wanted to hear with no concern whatsoever for the integrity of his own position, only the consolidation of his influence:
The story is told that Perón, in his days of glory, once proposed to induct a nephew in the mysteries of politics. He first brought the young man with him when he received a deputation of communists; after hearing their views, he told them, “You’re quite right.” The next day he received a deputation of fascists and replied again to their arguments, “You’re quite right.” Then he asked his nephew what he thought and the young man said, “You’ve spoken with two groups with diametrically opposite opinions and you told them both that you agreed with them. This is completely unacceptable.” Perón replied, “You’re quite right too.” An anecdote like this is an illustration of why no-one can be expected to assess Pope Francis unless he understands the tradition of Argentinian politics, a phenomenon outside the rest of the world’s experience; the Church has been taken by surprise by Francis because it has not had the key to him: he is Juan Perón in ecclesiastical translation. Those who seek to interpret him otherwise are missing the only relevant criterion.
The desire to defend the pope is an understandable and even praiseworthy characteristic in any Catholic. But Jesus is, as He told us, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” We must not put our papist instincts, no matter how noble, above the service of that Truth. The impulse to explain away troubling events in the hope of securing peace of mind is a luxury the present crisis does not afford us.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.