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Papal Confusion

It's how Pope Francis is changing the church
Upon this rock? (Paper Street Design/Shutterstock)

The Catholic writer Phil Lawler, author of the new book Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock, offers his thoughts on what Pope Francis may or may not have said about the existence of Hell. Excerpt:

But that non-denial leaves two questions unanswered:

Did the Pope say those words—or did he say something close enough so that Scalfari’s quotation is not totally inaccurate?

Why did the Pope submit to an interview with a journalist who would not quote him accurately?

Bear in mind that this is not the first time that Scalfari has interviewed the Pontiff, nor is it the first time that his articles have produced sensational headlines, based on shocking “quotations” from the Pontiff. In fact this is Scalfari’s fifth such interview. Again and again and again the Vatican public-relations machinery has cranked out a clarification, reminding bewildered Catholics that the quotations may not have been accurate.

Then again, maybe the quotations were accurate. In 2015, Scalfari made a similar report that the Pope had denied the reality of hell. If that report was inaccurate, why didn’t Pope Francis correct him in subsequent conversations, so that he would not make the same error again? For that matter, why doesn’t the Pontiff issue a statement of his own, right now, affirming that he does believe in hell? At this point, it is difficult to deny that either Scalfari is deliberately twisting the Pope’s statements—in which case he should certainly not be granted interviews—or the Pope is making statements that justify the headline coverage.

Pope Francis evidently thinks of Scalfari as a friend, and he certainly has the right to speak freely with his friends. But why would he speak on the record, if he knows that the record will be distorted? I can only conclude that Pope Francis—the Pope who encouraged young Catholics to “make a mess”—is deliberately creating confusion.

Lawler goes on to say that confusion is the hallmark of this papacy. That’s certainly how it looks to me. Think back to 2013, when he made his famous “Who am I to judge?” remark about gays in that press conference. A reader of this blog who teaches religion at a Catholic high school wrote to say that in a single stroke, Francis destroyed all the work that he (the teacher) has done with the kids in his classes. The students all concluded from that remark that they could believe anything they wanted to about sexuality, because even the Pope said, “Who am I to judge?”

This is Francis’s way. Remember his drawn-out answer when a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man asked why she couldn’t receive communion in a Catholic church? He didn’t exactly give her permission to receive, but his answer was quite ambiguous.

He does this kind of thing a lot. Pat Buchanan calls out the Pope on his Hell remarks:

The Vatican swiftly issued a statement saying the pope had had a private conversation, not a formal interview, with his friend, Scalfari.

The Vatican added: “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.”

Sorry, but this will not do. This does not answer the questions the pope raised in his chat. Does hell exist? Are souls that die in mortal sin damned to hell for all eternity? Does the pope accept this belief? Is this still the infallible teaching of the Roman Catholic Church?

However one may applaud Francis’ stance on social justice, on matters of faith and morals he has called defined doctrine into question and created confusion throughout the Church he heads.

Note well that the Vatican had to close off part of St. Peter’s basilica on Thursday when plaster began falling from the roof onto worshipers below. Kind of hard to miss that symbolism.

Lest you think that this doesn’t matter to us non-Catholic Christians, let me refer you to this exchange between Ross Douthat and me, from our interview:

Though not a Catholic, I try to follow Catholic news, because I think that as goes the Roman church, so goes the West. Why should non-Catholics care about your book?

Because half the Christian world is Catholic, and every Christian church exists in some kind of significant dialogue and/or significant rivalry with the Church of Rome. Because the Protestant and Orthodox experiences of modernity may be somewhat different, but there is a commonality to Christian dilemmas in the face of modern trends, and so the way that the biggest, oldest communion changes or doesn’t inevitably establishes a template that influences everyone else – or, alternatively, becomes the Christian world’s most important cautionary tale.

In particular, I think the Francis era in Catholicism will tell all Western Christians something important about the plausibility of the thesis you advance in The Benedict Option – that so-called “liquid modernity” will dissolve every Christian confession that doesn’t hold fast to tradition. The Vatican under Francis has been critical of your argument, and for understandable reasons: Their vision, what you might call The Francis Option, is very different, because it assumes that there are all kinds of ways that the faith might adapt and change to suit the times, and that such adaptation requires leaving the “rigidity” associated with conservatism and traditionalism behind. And if the pope’s reformation succeeds, if Catholicism adapts in the way he and his intimates envision and then thrives and evangelizes more successfully, it will supply a kind of explicit counter to your vision, and a different model for Christian flourishing in our challenging cultural matrix.

If it succeeds; if it fails or leads Catholicism deeper into division, it will offer a rather different set of lessons.

And then it isn’t just Christians who should care about the Francis era and its implications. Any religious person, indeed anyone whose life is affected by religion’s influence on human culture (which means, well, everyone), has a meaningful stake in the question of how far a theoretically tradition-bound institution can go in adapting to modernity, how comfortable a New Testament faith can become with the developed world’s present way of life, and whether in trying to push Catholicism forward (or “forward”) the pope is pushing it toward newfound influence or toward crisis, division, and some unknown post-liberal future. We talk a lot about the idea of a crisis of liberalism in our political debates these days; well, the question of whether an institution like the Catholic Church can successfully liberalize without destroying its own integrity, whether it can thrive in a form more adapted to the liberal order, is very relevant to broader political and cultural question of whether liberal society can sustain itself long term.

Then last but hardly least, everyone should care because the church of Rome is the one true church, so the fate of the entire human race is effectively at stake when Catholicism goes into crisis. But surely that goes without saying.

Obviously I don’t agree with that last paragraph, but the rest of it is true. No Christian can afford to be indifferent to what’s happening in the Roman church now.



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