John Clark is an author and speechwriter. His first book Who’s Got You? reached #1 in the Amazon Kindle “Fatherhood” category and his new book How to Be a Superman Dad in a Kryptonite World, Even When You Can’t Afford A Decent Cape was just released by Guiding Light Books. He has written hundreds of articles and blogs about Catholic family life and apologetics in such places as Magis Center, Seton Magazine, Catholic Digest, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. A graduate of Christendom College, John and his wife Lisa have nine children and live in Virginia.
It was widely reported last week that Pope Francis, in an interview with Eugenio Scalfari of La Repubblica, said that, “Hell does not exist.”
The Vatican quickly responded, in effect, that this “quotation” should not “be considered as a faithful transcription of the Holy Father’s words.” In fact, the Vatican clarified that Mr. Scalfari had not even officially conducted an interview with Pope Francis, though the two had met and had a conversation at the pope’s residence. Nevertheless, the story took on a life of its own, and the internet was ablaze with comments. I even received emails and text messages from both Catholic and non-Catholic friends asking me if Pope Francis had actually said that, so I referred them to the Vatican’s official response.
Though the Vatican’s pithy response was prompt, one might speculate as to whether it was sufficient. One might further speculate as to whether the time was ripe for a “teachable moment,” as the kids say today. I guess the Thomist in me would have been happier if the Vatican’s response had included the actual teaching on Hell; after all, neither Scripture nor magisterial pronouncements are exactly lacking on the topic. Moreover, it would have given me something meatier to forward to my friends to answer their fundamental question about Hell’s existence.
In that spirit, I would reference the following.
In his Catholic Dictionary, Father John Hardon explains that de fide (“of faith”) teachings of the Catholic Church are “infallibly true” and that their “infallible certitude derives ultimately from divine revelation.”
Does the church have any de fide teachings regarding Hell? The answer is yes. Ludwig Ott, in his famous and oft-cited Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, lists two specific de fide teachings that apply to our present conversation. First: “The souls of those who die in the condition of personal grievous sin enter Hell.” Second: “The punishment of Hell lasts for all eternity.”
That these are divinely revealed teachings can only be missed with gross negligence or outright refusal. In rejecting God, man risks eternal punishment in Hell—this is a consistent thread running throughout Scripture. Dire warnings about Hell appear in the Old Testament, and Ott references several such passages, including Daniel 12:2, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” There is also Judith 16:17, “Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; fire and worms he will give to their flesh; they shall weep in pain for ever.” The New Testament contains many passages as well. Saint Paul’s letters frequently reference Hell, as in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might....” Of course, the weightiest warnings come from the very lips of Christ, such as Matthew 25: 41 & 46, “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’…And they will go away into eternal punishment…” In case one didn’t get the point in the first six dozen books of Scripture, Revelation 20:10 reads, “…the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
That Hell is a place of eternal punishment was reiterated by the Athanasian Creed itself as well as a number of Church councils. The Council of Constantinople in 543, for instance, clarified the fact. Seven centuries later, in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council defined: “And all these will rise with their own bodies which they now have so that they may receive according to their works, whether good or bad; the wicked, a perpetual punishment with the devil; the good, eternal glory with Christ.” Six centuries later, the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) stated, “Therefore, all who die in actual mortal sin are excluded from the kingdom of God and will suffer forever the torments of hell where there is no redemption.” Moreover, Vatican I anathematized (condemned in the strongest possible ecclesiastical terminology) the contrary position: “If anyone says that a man can be justified even after death; or if he says that the punishments of the damned in hell will not last forever, let him be anathema.” Creeds, catechisms, and councils all attest to the same unchangeable teaching.
All this said, prelates in recent decades have often been reluctant to speak about Hell—so much so, in fact, that a generation of poorly catechized Catholics may have begun to wonder whether Hell is a real place after all.
Despite all of this confusion, one should note for the record that Pope Francis has hardly been shy about discussing Hell. 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.
And on that last point, Mr. Scalfari’s “interview” testifies to the fact that this is not the golden age of journalism. Actually, that comment is not fair to journalists, because Scalfari is a journalist in the same sense that I am an astronaut—which is to say, I watched the movie Apollo 13 about 20 years ago. (My resume also includes listening to the song Rocket Man by Elton John). Incredibly, we are living at a time in which journalists have re-invented the meaning of the quotation mark. But authentic journalism is less an art than it is a science, it is prose rather than poetry, it is fact rather than fiction. Either it is precise or it is wrong. Something to consider the next time we read an “interview.”