ROME - In his latest wide-ranging conversation with legendary 93-year-old Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the left-wing daily La Repubblica and a self-professed non-believer, Pope Francis is quoted describing creation in terms of energy, expressing pride at being called a “revolutionary,” and casting doubt on the existence of Hell.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke on Thursday issued a now-customary distancing statement, describing the conversation as a “private meeting, without releasing any interview,” and Scalfari’s front-page article on Thursday quoting Francis at length as “the fruit of his own reconstruction,” in which the pope’s words “are not cited textually,” and warning that it “should not be considered as a faithful transcript of the Holy Father’s words.”
This is the fifth time Francis has sat down with Scalfari since the pontiff’s election in 2013, and on those previous occasions, the Vatican has said something similar after Scalfari published a major account of their conversation.
On the existence of Hell, Scalfari described himself asking Francis what happens to the souls of sinners, and specifically, where they are punished. He then quoted the pope as follows:
“They’re not punished. Those who repent obtain forgiveness and enter the ranks of those who contemplate him, but those who don’t repent and can’t be forgiven disappear. A Hell doesn’t exist, what exists is the disappearance of sinning souls.”
For the record, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official compendium of Catholic teaching, upholds the existence of Hell:
“The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of Hell and its eternity. 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, ‘eternal fire’.”
Francis himself has spoken of Hell as a real option for one’s eternal destiny on multiple occasions, including a 2017 to the famed Marian shrine of Fatima.
“Our Lady foretold, and warned us about, a way of life that is godless and indeed profanes God in his creatures,” Francis said then. “Such a life - frequently proposed and imposed - risks leading to Hell.”
At another point, Scalfari says he asked Francis if the real moment of creation wasn’t that depicted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but when Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, thus setting the stage for life in a fallen world.
According to Scalfari, that prompted the pope to reflect on God and energy.
“The creator, that is, the God in the high Heavens, created the whole universe, and above all energy, which is the instrument with which our Lord created the earth, the mountains, the seas, the stars, the galaxy and living nature, even the particles and atoms of the different species that divine nature has brought to life,” Francis is quoted as saying.
“Energy made the universe explode, and from time to time it’s modified,” he said. “New species substitute for those that disappear, and it’s the creator God that regulates this alteration.”
Scalfari also says that Francis talked about the importance of religion, while conceding that “one can have a religious sense without practicing it.”
In terms of where religious faith and practice is strongest today, Scalfari writes, Francis mentioned “the peoples of South America, the plains of North America, Oceania, and a band of Africa stretching from East to West.”
Also on Africa, the pontiff said it’s an “agitated and tormented continent,” where the “masses of slaves with their burden of suffering” today originate, and it needs “much help.”
Turning to Europe, Scalfari recounts Francis saying “Europe is a continent which, for centuries, has fought wars, revolutions, rivalries and hatred, even in the Church,” but at the same time, it’s where “religiosity reached its maximum heights.”
“That’s why I took the name of ‘Francis,’” he said. “He’s one of the great examples of the Church, which needs to be understood and imitated.”
Finally, Scalfari wrote that he reminded Francis that when he writes of the pontiff, Scalfari often refers to him as a “revolutionary.”
“I know, and it’s a word that honors me in the sense in which you say it,” Scalfari quotes the pope as replying.
According to his reconstruction, Francis then wished Scalfari a happy birthday - he turns 94 on April 6 - and walked him to the door of his Santa Marta residence on Vatican grounds, hugging him as two Swiss Guards stood at attention and then waited to wave goodbye as his car departed.