For one brief shining moment of relief I thought I was off the hook.
Pope Francis apparently declared last week, in an informal interview, that there was no such place as Hell.
The moment soon passed. To recall the old Audie Murphy war film, we have been ‘To Hell and Back’, because the Vatican public relations apparatchiks quickly moved in to correct their leader’s statement; actually, to deny it. His Holiness, they insisted, had said no such thing. His words, as recorded by a ninety-something journalist – and an atheist at that – had simply been misconstrued. There is a Hell, just as the Roman Catholic Church has always decreed, and will continue to decree – presumably until Hell freezes over.
The journalist, we were encouraged to infer, was not only too old for the job – he failed to take notes – but as an unbeliever he also had a jaundiced view of Catholic doctrine. In other words, he heard what he wished to hear.
What the Pontiff is alleged to have said, in answer to the interviewer’s question, was that people who sinned but refused to repent simply ‘disappeared’. To what place, was not specified. Perhaps to another mythical place called Purgatory, which is where, according to another absurd slice of church doctrine, the unbaptised children of Catholics were once assigned. I say ‘once’ because the Church authorities dropped that particular article of faith some years back.
There is no telling what Pope Francis did or did not say to the Godless scribe, least of all what he meant to say, because he himself has said nothing to correct or clarify his own statement. I imagine his advisors told him something along these lines: “With respect, Your Holiness, you’ve done enough damage. Best to keep shtum about the whole thing and let it blow over”.
The suspicion remains, however, at least in this writer’s mind, that Francis said exactly what he was quoted as saying. That would be interesting in itself, suggesting that we may have a Pope who does not believe half the nonsense that the Vatican has been peddling as doctrine over the centuries. I think there is every chance – well, perhaps no more than a smidgen of a chance – that Francis is actually a secret agnostic, but who is prevented from coming out of the closet by the shadowy figures that run the Curia. Their brief is, as it always has been, to stop the Almighty’s representative on Earth from shooting his mouth off and giving the whole silly game away, thereby bringing the whole profitable and privileged edifice crashing down about their ears.
Many liberal Catholics, it seems, feel that Francis, if not an agnostic, is the most reform-minded, down-to-earth and open-minded Pope within living memory. But while being given credit for his reformist impulses and open rhetoric he attracts equal criticism for the lack of action. He is an enigma because, by all accounts, he is regarded in the conservative wing of the church – which includes most of the senior clerics in the developing world, especially Africa – as a potentially dangerous iconoclast. Francis himself once commented, perhaps revealingly, that his pontificate might be one of the most short-lived in history – presumably an allusion to the enmity of the more die-hard reactionaries in the College of Cardinals and those that dominate the administrative branches of the Vatican.
So it seems, sadly, that Hell will be retaining its unhallowed place in the doctrine of the One True Faith.
To which I can only respond by thanking God that I’m an atheist.