Pope Francis May Or May Not Have Said Hell Doesn't Exist

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An Italian journalist has claimed the pope recently made some nontraditional, to say the least, statements about one foundational Christian belief. Is there a hell? Pope Francis suggested there wasn't one, according to the newspaper La Repubblica, but the Vatican argues the article isn't a faithful representation of what the pope may have said.

In an article published Thursday, La Repubblica's founder, 93-year-old Eugenio Scalfari, claimed the pope had denied the existence of hell when he was asked where so-called "bad souls" go for punishment.

"They are not punished. Those who repent, obtain God's forgiveness and take their place among the ranks of those who contemplate him," Scalfari, who is well-known for not taking notes or recording his interviews, claimed the pope said. "But those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven disappear. A Hell doesn't exist, the disappearance of sinning souls exists."

But the Vatican was quick to issue a statement arguing Scalfari's article was "the result of his reconstruction" and must therefore not be considered "a faithful transcription of the Holy Father's words." According to the Catholic Herald, the Vatican also said Pope Francis had not granted Scalfari an interview, but had simply received him "in a private meeting on the occasion of Easter."

Moreover, the catechism of the Catholic Church issued by the Vatican is quite clear about the existence of hell. "The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity," it states. "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." The catechism goes on to describe those punishments as "eternal fire" but notes that "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God."

According to Reuters, this is not the first — or even the second — time the Vatican has issued statements refuting Scalfari's quotations of the pope. In 2014, for example, the Vatican distanced itself from Italian journalist's claims that the pope had abolished sin. And when another interview with the pope drew criticism and questions in 2013, Scalfari conceded that it was possible some of the words he ascribed as being Pope Francis' were not actually his.

"I try to understand the person I am interviewing, and after that I write his answers with my own words," the Catholic News Agency reported Scalfari said during a meeting with the journalists of the Foreign Press Association of Rome. After asserting that he never took notes or used a tape recorder, Scalfari admitted it could therefore be possible that "some of the pope's words I reported, were not shared by Pope Francis."

Further confusing speculation over whether or not the pope believes in the existence of hell is the fact that Pope Francis has publicly spoken of hell before. According to the Catholic News Agency, Pope Francis used the threat of hell to warn members of the mafia to change how they live their lives during a March 2014 prayer vigil. The news agency reported the pope urged those in the mafia to change "while there is still time, so that you do not end up in hell." Pope Francis then reportedly went on to say hell is what awaits those who continue on a path of sin.

La Repubblica's report of Pope Francis' purported remarks come at the start of an intense four days that culminates in Easter Sunday. On Thursday, the pope will complete the ritual washing of 12 people's feet at Regina Coeli prison in Rome. On Friday, he will preside over the Way of the Cross procession before a re-enactment of the crucifixion. The pope will then lead an Easter vigil at St. Peter's Basilica on Saturday night, followed by an Easter mass on Sunday to mark the resurrection of Christ.