Pope Francis, Hell, Phil Lawler, Lies, Damned Lies, . . .

Pope Francis, Hell, Phil Lawler, Lies, Damned Lies, . . . March 30, 2018

Now there is another stink about Pope Francis supposedly not believing in hell (flat-out denying it). It’s based on the words of a 94-year-old atheist interviewer of the pope, Eugenio Scalfari, who has a very annoying habit of writing down the pope’s alleged “words” merely from memory. It’s all very familiar to me, because I wrote about the same phenomenon almost three months ago now. Here is a somewhat abridged treatment of a longer review devoted exclusively to the topic of hell, in my Amazon review of Phil Lawler’s book, Lost Shepherd:

A third instance (still in Chapter Two) is even poorer “reasoning”. It involves a 92-year-old atheist journalist who is in the habit of paraphrasing the pope’s words after the interviews he does with him.

Apparently, he has terrible lapses of memory or is deliberately deceiving his readers, since (again) the pope’s utterances elsewhere show that he believes the contrary of what he supposedly “expressed.” In Chapter Two, p. 20, Lawler writes:

In March 2015, the talkative pope again spoke with [Eugenio] Scalfari for La Repubblica. This time Francis—at least as interpreted by his favorite interviewer—appeared to cast doubt on the existence of hell.

Scalfari (as reported by Sandro Magister in L’Ezpresso Magazine, 10-27-17), also thinks that the pope has denied the existence of heaven and purgatory, too. Right.

And sure enough, for the third time, Lawler doesn’t make the slightest effort to do the necessary research and see what the pope actually states elsewhere about the topic under  consideration. It’s not hard to find:

1. Pope Francis strongly asserted belief in hell in a homily of 11-12-16.

2. Talking in March 2014 to about 900 relatives of victims of the Italian mafia, the Holy Father addressed the mobsters as follows:

This life that you live will not give you joy or happiness. Convert, there is time before you finish up in hell, which is what awaits unless you change path.

“Hellfire and brimstone” preaching from a pope who supposedly denies hell? Once again, Catholic Phil Lawler is out to sea, despairing of the pope’s eschatology, yet Jewish talk show host Dennis Prager rapturously praised the pope for strongly asserting the doctrine of hellfire and judgment (National Review, 3-25-14). What is this: alternate universes?

3. Pope Francis again issued a rather striking challenge to the wealthy who exploit or ignore the poor, in his annual Lenten message, written on 10-4-15:

[T]he danger always remains that by a constant refusal to open the doors of their hearts to Christ who knocks on them in the poor, the proud, rich and powerful will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell.

We have to be on-guard against terrible “liberal / heterodox” preaching like that!

4. Pope Francis was in Fatima on 5-13-17 and stated that the Blessed Virgin Mary “foresaw and warned us of the risk of hell where a godless life that profanes Him in his creatures will lead.”

My friend Pete Vere wrote a similar article today, and discussion ensued over on his Facebook page. Matthew Cox’s words will be in green; Karl Keating’s in blue.

I have no doubt that the Holy Father believes in Hell. Why Pope Francis continues to be interviewed by Scalfari who completely misrepresents what the Pope said is a scandal and it has to stop.

Why doesn’t Lawler make it clear, then, that Pope Francis believes in hell, rather than milk this bilge over and over? Is he more concerned about the truth and the faithful or about his own propagandistic agenda?

Phil is probably frustrated like a lot of us that he continually grants interviews to Scalfari, and at a certain point you have to wonder why the Pope is doing this. Also while Lawler did bring that up in his article and like I said I have no doubt that the Holy Father believes in Hell (I don’t believe that a Pope can be a heretic at all ever) it is beyond frustrating that he meets with Scalfari and interviews [with] him. That is the big issue.

I wonder that, too, but that’s a completely separate issue from whether or not he believes in hell.

If Lawler was so concerned about saying that the pope shouldn’t get interviewed by Scalfari, he could have said that and also cited the many instances where Pope Francis affirmed hell. But he refused to do the latter, because it doesn’t fit with his particular agenda. If he’s concerned about the flock, then he would show them that the pope believes in hell. Instead, he writes:

I can only conclude that Pope Francis . . . is deliberately creating confusion. . . .

Pope Francis realized that he cannot directly contradict the perennial teaching of the Church, put forth so clearly by St. John Paul II. But he could and did create confusion about that teaching, and thereby provided new maneuvering room for those who are unhappy with the Church’s stand.

By the same logic, Pope Francis cannot deny the existence of hell without directly contradicting the teaching of the Church. But he can create confusion, and he has done so once again. Did he deny, or at least question, the existence of hell? We don’t know. . . .

What possible purpose could this interview with Scalfari have served, if not to cause confusion about the Catholic faith? Confusion is the hallmark of this pontificate: not a bug but a feature.

In fairness to Phil Lawler, I think Pete has missed the point in his post at Where Peter Is. Phil’s concern was what the pope meant or didn’t mean, or seemed to mean or seemed not to mean, in the “interview” with Scalfari. I’m sure Phil knows that on multiple occasions in the past–Pete refers to some of them–that the pope spoke about hell as a real and not a mythical thing.

When writers are criticized, usually it’s best to focus on what they just have written and on its own terms. There hardly has been a piece written by Pete or Dave or me that couldn’t be misconstrued or faulted for not covering a much wider area than was intended in the piece.

Phil thinks that the pope has engendered confusion through his “interview” with Scalfari. Given what has appeared in headlines around the world, I think one has to say that that is so. The Vatican’s weak response hasn’t helped.

We all know that the pope believes in hell (as I said, it’s been quite clear from his remarks over the years), but it’s also clear that, each time Scalfari comes out with another “interview” in which he took no notes, the pope’s assistants have to rush out with clarifications and often enough with clarifications, such as the recent one, that are ham-handed.

Why does the pope keep operating this way? He now has given five “interviews” to Scalfari, a man who seems entirely incompetent as a journalist. Yes, he’s the pope’s friend, but the pope has lots of friends, not a few of them journalists, and probably all of those would be more competent than Scalfari.

Phil wonders whether the pope operates this way because it somehow is part of his desire to “make a mess.” Maybe. Others will suggest other reasons. I think it can be said that the pope is savvy enough that he hasn’t been doing this purely accidentally. He has a reason for repeatedly turning to Scalfari, but I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know that anybody knows.

Absent that knowledge, people will speculate, as Phil has done. I welcome speculation from Pete, Dave, and others. Perhaps someone will proffer a reason that neatly explains things. I hope so.

I think you make a valid point. I don’t know why he keeps interviewing with Scalfari. I would even call it “stupid.”

My point, though, directly follows from what Lawler wrote in his latest article. Therefore, I am dealing with it on its own terms (at least in one respect), as you suggest. He says there is confusion. Okay, if that is the case, then it’s not true [as a statement about the faithful as a whole] that “We all know that the pope believes in hell.”

Lawler is implying that the faithful do not know that; thus, the present confusion! We can’t have it both ways. If they knew it, there wouldn’t be confusion, right?: as to whether the pope believed the doctrine.

There would only be perplexity (which I think even all of us here agree on) as to why he keeps talking to this old fool, who has even claimed that he denies heaven and purgatory too.

So, seeing that Phil is concerned about the confusion, why doesn’t he (knowing that the pope does in fact believe in hell, as you say), give several quotes proving that he does (as I have done, and as Pete has in his article)?

He wants to speculate about the pope’s intentions (“I can only conclude that Pope Francis . . . is deliberately creating confusion”). Very well; we can give him the same treatment:

I would wonder what his agenda is: making sure the Catholic flock knows the truth about Pope Francis’ true beliefs about hell and other things, or making sure that they only hear things that fit into his agenda: that the pope deliberately wants to sow confusion and subvert the Catholic faith? Pointing out [with documentation] that he does in fact believe in hell runs contrary to that agenda, and so he omits it: both from his book and from this article.

Because I am motivated by 1) educating the flock (catechesis / apologetics), and 2) showing them what the pope actually believes [factual journalism, rather than muckraking or sensationalistic journalism], by demonstration and not cynical insinuations based on an argument from silence and 94-year-old atheists who “cite” from memory, I do provide that information, but Phil doesn’t.

Why would he not do so? You tell me, Karl. If he continues not to do that, I have every bit as much justification to question or speculate about his intentions, as he does with regard to the Holy Father’s intentions.

I wasn’t commenting on your article but on Pete’s.

I didn’t say you were commenting on mine. Now I would appreciate your thoughts in reply. You did say: “I welcome speculation from Pete, Dave, and others.” I gave mine. So how do you reply? My article and Pete’s are essentially the same, anyway. As I see it, we’re both arguing the same thing in the same way.

I started out agreeing with your main premise, but I went into a deeper analysis, too (as I habitually do).

We can have a real discussion between two orthodox Catholics who disagree about Phil Lawler’s book, or it can just abruptly end, once again (at the point where it might involve some slight criticism of Phil Lawler). I happen to like challenging dialogue. It’s a major reason why I became a Catholic.

Oddly enough, Karl seems extremely reluctant to utter any public criticism of Phil Lawler. He’s not nearly so skittish about uttering public criticisms of the Holy Father. I think an examination of proper priorities is in order.

When he was criticizing Pope Francis, he wrote at length. I’ve yet to see any criticism of him of Lawler’s reasoning and book, apart from general statements that he doesn’t agree with everything in the book. 

Here’s his chance.

[If Karl replies in due course, it’ll be posted here with further counter-reply. If it doesn’t appear here, then he has not replied at all]


[further comments of mine on two other threads]:

Why do people “need” Pope Francis to come out and say he believes in hell when it is clear that he already has said it many times in homilies? Anyone can find that in 20 minutes on Google, as I did. It’s not difficult. But I’ve made it easier: just read one of my two articles on it.

Why are they unable to take 20 minutes and do a Google search and put it to rest? Why is that so difficult? Then they have no problem. People manage to do far more difficult things every day.


I agree it would be good to “put his foot down.” But I also think he has made it clear many times that he believes in hell. We go by what he actually says: not by what a 94-year-old atheist reciting from memory claims that he said. The same atheist also has claimed that Pope Francis denied the existence of heaven and purgatory, too. He has no credibility. Why the pope keeps doing interviews with him, I have no idea. But it’s clear that Scalfari is off his rocker.

I do agree that the Holy Father ought to stop giving interviews to this guy altogether, and even called it “stupid” in my article [above]. It makes the weak stumble, to hear these things, even though they are easily refuted.

I’m just saying that it would be good to not interact with Scalfari in this way, or demand editorial consent or something. It’s absurd to have this happen over and over. I do agree that much with the criticisms being made.

If I did an interview with someone and then I read it later and he recited my words from memory and said I denied hell or salvation by grace or the Immaculate Conception or some other dogma, he would have hell to pay! And I’m just a lowly apologist. 

It seems that with the pope, he should be more vigilant to not allow such silly things to keep happening and make people stumble. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy or that he’s deliberately seeking to spread confusion (Lawler’s thesis), but I think it may arguably be lax and too little concern for impressions and false notions getting out into the media.


I’m giving him every benefit of the doubt. I’m defending him! I just got accused of heresy on my page for doing so. I don’t think there is anyone out there who has defended the pope as much as I have, and have taken big hits for it, too (paid a price).

All l’m saying is that there are millions of souls involved, and it’s not helpful that they read the current idiotic press releases. Even Rush Limbaugh talked about it on his show today. That’s not good. And it could have been prevented by avoiding interviews or whatever it was with this guy, knowing that he will again publish his “recollections.” This is not the first time. The pope has done about five prior interviews with him.

None of this had to happen. In saying this, I’m not making the slightest accusation about the pope’s orthodoxy. It’s simply bad “media policy” or “public relations” or whatever one wants to call it.

The pope has not been promised infallibility in media savvy or media relations or flawless wisdom and prudence in communicating the Catholic message.

I don’t see how it is helpful for the message to go out (which is dead-wrong) that he denies hell. How in the world is that a good thing at all? Millions read that and go no further, and they have been stumbled. And it never had to happen.

The thing, too, is that it is not just “the Church-hating atheist saying” this nonsense. We now have people like Phil Lawler saying it in a best-selling book (my original reply on this topic was to that book). And we have it being sopped up uncritically by people like Raymond Arroyo, who spreads it to many more millions on TV, on a trusted Catholic station.


The difference between a guy like Lawler and me is that he looks at this and says: “see? The pope obviously wants to deliberately spread confusion.”

I say that it was bad policy to do interviews with the wingnut, but I don’t judge the pope. I simply conclude that it is stupid and unwise PR. I don’t know why he can’t see that, but I don’t start judging his orthodoxy and motivations, even when something is inexplicable to me.


Photo credit: Eugenio Scalfari (11-7-11) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license]



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