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No Hell Below Us, Above Us Only Sky

The Pope did not say there is no Heaven. There is nothing intellectually embarrassing about the notion that good people go to Heaven when they die. It sounds a bit like a wish-fulfilment fantasy to outsiders, but it’s the sort of thing a loving and all-powerful god might provide for his creatures. However, the Pope did say there is no Hell.

As soon as he said it, the Vatican’s communications department mobilised to deny that he had said it, as they have done on several previous occasions when the Pope went off the rails. But of course he said it, and the reason why is obvious.

It is very hard for a well-educated person of modern sensibilities to believe that a loving god would condemn any of the human beings he created to an eternity of physical torture and mental anguish. That is not what loving human fathers do, even to children who disobey them, so the traditional notion of Hell is a permanent problem for many Catholic theologians.

If you do not live inside the bubble of faith, it’s not a problem at all: no Heaven, no Hell, no God, just us under an empty sky. But people of faith like Pope Francis, who want to believe that ‘God is love’, struggle with the concept of Hell – and people like Eugenio Scalfari, who grew up in the faith but left it long ago, still sympathise with their struggle.

Scalfari, now 93 years old, was the founder of the highly respected Italian newspaper La Repubblica, and is still a practicing journalist. He is an avowed atheist, but has been meeting Pope Francis in private for years for long conversations on religious matters. And Scalfari is an unusual journalist, in that he does not record his interviews or even take notes. Instead, he “reconstructs” the conversation from memory.

As somebody who has done thousands of interviews (and does record them or take notes), I envy Scalfari the freedom he enjoys to participate fully in the conversation. I doubt that he can always remember the interviewee’s words verbatim, but I am sure that he is rarely mistaken about the meaning of what was said. And I suspect that it is exactly the fact that Scalfari does not provide an undeniable verbatim text that draws Pope Francis to him.

The recent exchange between the two men, as recounted by Scalfari in Repubblica last Thursday, began with the journalist asking Francis where “bad souls” go and how they are punished. According to Scalfari’s account, Francis replied as follows:

“Souls are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and go among the ranks of those who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven disappear. There is no hell – there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is heresy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (ccc 1035) states that “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’.” The Catechism does go on to say that “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God,” but there’s no getting around the fact that official doctrine says they are lamenting this sad separation from God while also burning in eternal fire. Which probably hurts quite a lot.

Pope Francis is clearly uncomfortable with this idea of God as the Eternal Torturer, and much prefers the notion that the souls of those “who do not repent and cannot be forgiven” will simply be destroyed. “Annihilationism” is the formal name for this argument, and it crops up quite often in modern theological speculation – but until and unless the Catholic Church changes its formal doctrine, it is still heresy.

Pope Francis is a practical man, and he chooses his battles carefully. Changing Catholic doctrine on Hell would be a long battle that consumed most of the energy within the Church that he would like to devote to other, more urgent changes. Yet he still cannot resist making his true views known (in a deniable way) by having these occasional conversations with Eugenio Scalfari.

Other topics he has raised in the same way include the “solemn nonsense” of trying to convert non-Catholic Christians to Catholicism (2013) – “there is no Catholic God,” Francis on that occasion – and the injustice of excluding divorced and remarried Catholics from full participation in the Church (2015).

Scalfari doesn’t mind the fact that the Vatican subsequently denies what he reported the Pope said, and that Francis himself tacitly goes along with that denial. It’s a game that both men play, and the accuracy of Scalfari’s reports is amply demonstrated by the fact that Francis keeps giving him more interviews despite his alleged ‘mis-reporting’ of previous ones.

But it’s hard not to wonder what the two of them think this game is achieving.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“As…him”; and “Other…Church (2015)”)

The Imperial Papacy

2 February 2013

The Imperial Papacy

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s the ROMAN Catholic Church, not the Republican Catholic Church or the People’s Revolutionary Socialist Democratic Catholic Church. Its rigid hierarchy and its centralising instincts are almost entirely due to the fact that it became the state religion of the Roman Empire over sixteen hundred years ago. And the pope is still, in essence, the emperor.

How Roman are the traditions and instincts of the church that Pope Benedict XVI has led for the past seven years? Well, one of his titles is “pontifex maximus”, usually translated from the Latin as “Supreme Pontiff”.

That was the title of the high priest of the old Roman (pagan) state religion under the Republic. When Rome became an empire, the emperors took it over, starting with Augustus. And somewhere in the fifth or sixth century – the timing is not clear – the title was transferred to the Christian bishop of Rome, who had become the head of the new state religion, Christianity.

This is not to say that the popes are secretly pagans: they are monotheists to the core. (The answer to the rhetorical question “Is the Pope a Catholic?” is “Yes”.) But they are ROMAN Catholics, and the religion they lead is still run like an empire. Very occasionally some maverick pope tries to change the model, but the system always wins in the end.

Benedict XVI was the emperor of a shrinking domain, for the Catholic Church has been shedding adherents not only in the West, where it is everywhere in steep decline, but also in the Latin American, African and Asian countries where it once held unchallenged sway. While secularism is the enemy that steals the faithful in the West, evangelical forms of Christianity are seducing Catholic believers away in what we used to call the Third World.

There are many who blame this hemorrhage on the outgoing pope (the first time anybody has ever used that phrase about a pope, for they normally die in office, like the emperors did). Benedict was chosen by his colleagues because they believed that he would fight off fundamental change, and he performed his duty well. His resignation for health reasons is an innovation, but it is the first that he has been guilty of.

He held the line on abortion (a sin in almost all circumstances), homosexuality (likewise, unless the person remains entirely celibate), married or female priests (definitely not), re-marriage after divorce (ditto), and contraception (under no circumstances, though he later said that HIV-positive prostitutes might be justified in asking their clients to use condoms).

It may seem weird that all of these major controversies are about sexuality or gender, but that’s not actually the Catholic Church’s fault. It’s equally inflexible in defending the doctrines of the Virgin Birth, the Triune God, and Papal Infallibility. It’s just that far more Catholics care about doctrines that affect their daily lives than about theological dogmas that have little practical effect.

What the Catholic Church is really fighting is modernisation, which it sees as moral decline. Perhaps it is right (though I don’t think so personally), but it is losing the battle. Yet Benedict XVI and the Church hierarchy are condemned to fight this battle until the last ditch, because they believe, probably correctly, that full modernisation would make them irrelevant.

So there’s no point in going on about how Pope Benedict XVI (or will we go back to calling him Cardinal Ratzinger after the end of this month?) failed to modernise the Church. He wasn’t hired to do that. The only pope who did try was John XXIII, and he died fifty years ago. Every pope since then (including the charismatic but deeply conservative John Paul II) has seen his task as being to stem the tide of change and restore the old order.

The job was largely complete even before Benedict became pope seven years ago. His job has merely been to ensure that there is no backsliding into liberalism, relativism and other modernist errors, and he has achieved that by ensuring that almost the entire College of Cardinals (the men who choose the next pope) are reliably conservative and orthodox.

The College had already been stuffed with conservative cardinals by his predecessor, John Paul II, so even there he really didn’t have to do much except steer the same steady course. Not a single one of the cardinals who are seen as “papabili” (men who might be elected as pope) could be described as liberal or reformist. There will be a new pope, but nothing is going to change. The haemorrhage will continue.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“It may…effect”)



The Lawless Church

21 March 2010

The Lawless Church

By Gwynne Dyer

The Biblical formula “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” is generally taken to mean that people should recognise the authority of the state in secular matters, but that is not necessarily what Jesus meant by it. It is certainly not the current practice of the Roman Catholic Church, although the rule in modern democracies is very clear: the law applies equally to everyone, even priests.

It’s more than two decades since evidence of widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy began to surface in the United States, Canada and Ireland, and still the revelations continue. A “tsunami” of allegations of child abuse in Catholic schools and orphanages is spreading from Ireland across the rest of Europe, and at the same time the extent of the cover-up is becoming clearer.

Even the Pope was involved. For over twenty years he headed the Vatican office that deals with paedophile priests, but he did not order them to be reported to the police because – as a Vatican spokesman explained – Church law “does not envisage automatic penalties” for child abuse. Evidence emerged this week that in 1996 he did not even answer letters from two archbishops asking him to take action against a priest who allegedly abused 200 boys in a school for the deaf in Wisconsin.

The priests who abused and raped the children were individuals, and such people exist in other walks of life too. But the decision to cover up their crimes was a greater crime, committed by men whose main concern was protecting the reputation of the large organisation which they served, the Catholic Church. They acted as they did because they genuinely believed, and still believe, that the Church is above the law.

No other organisation makes this claim. Consider, for example, what would have happened if any other large organisation had discovered that some of its members were exploiting their positions and their power to have sexual relations with children.

The organisation in question might be a welfare department, or a boarding school, or a long-term care centre for severely handicapped children; it could be in the US, or Chile, or France. It makes no difference: the response would be the same.

The people in charge would immediately suspend the individual against whom the accusation has been made, so that he or she has no further contact with children until the matter has been fully investigated. If there was any actual sexual contact, they would immediately report it to the police, because that is a criminal offence. Not to report it would be a criminal offence on the part of the managers, and they could go to jail for it.

Well, a lot of child sexual abuse has been going on in the Catholic Church, and offences of this sort have been coming to the attention of the abusers’ superiors on a quite frequent basis for decades now. What did they do about it?

They hushed it up. They swore the child victims and their parents to silence, exploiting their loyalty to the Church. They moved the paedophile priests to other schools or institutions where they generally still had contact with children. And they didn’t report them to the police.

No bishop, cardinal or pope ever went to prison for his part in this massive cover-up of grave crimes. This is the really shocking thing about this scandal: the sheer contempt for “secular” law that permeates the entire Catholic hierarchy.

At a relatively low level, you can see it in the ignorant remarks of Monsignor Maurice Dooly, one of Ireland’s leading experts in canon law, who explained to Irish radio last week why priests did not have to report child abuse to the police. “Priests are not auxiliary policemen,” he said. “They do not have an obligation to go down to the police.” But they do: they are Irish citizens, and that is the law in Ireland.

Even Pope Benedict XVI doesn’t get it. In 2001, when he was still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and serving as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he sent a letter to Catholic bishops around the world instructing them to report all abuse cases to his office at the Vatican for confidential handling.

This was taken by most bishops as meaning that they should NOT report abuse cases to the police. Vatican sources now claim that that’s not what Ratzinger really meant by his letter, but what else could it mean? He still doesn’t understand that bishops and even cardinals must obey the laws of the country they live in.

As a head of state, Pope Benedict XVI is now truly above the law, so he need not fear the policeman’s knock at the door. But there are still many priests who committed horrendous crimes but have been protected by the Church. There are also a good many bishops who should face trial for covering up those crimes, but it will never happen. A dog-collar is as good as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The organisation…same”; and “At a relatively…Ireland”)

What’s Wrong with Italy?

1 March 2007

What’s Wrong with Italy?

By Gwynne Dyer

The most extreme diagnosis of Italy’s problem was offered by journalist Peter Popham in the Independent. He blamed it all on the Vatican: “Imagine that Hitler did not die in his bunker in 1945 but instead cut a deal with the new West German government, giving him continued sovereignty over a small patch of Berlin — and continued intellectual hegemony over the millions he had brainwashed during the previous decade….Italy’s Vatican problem is a lot like that, with the difference that the Church has been wielding its mind-control for nearly two millennia.”

The trigger for this extraordinary outburst was the week-long political crisis that nearly brought down Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s centre-left government, Italy’s 61st since the Second World War. Yet Popham is not anti-Catholic. It’s just that, like most people who spend a lot of time in Italy, he has simultaneously fallen in love with the country and utterly lost patience with it.

It’s an affliction he shares with a great many Italians: no country except Argentina spends more time debating what is wrong with it. He blamed the Vatican on this occasion because the crisis was provoked by a government plan to legalise “civil unions” (marriages by another name) even for gays, which greatly annoyed the Catholic Church. But it’s more complicated than that.

The vote that Prodi’s government lost was actually on a proposal to leave 1,900 Italian troops in Afghanistan until 2011 and to double the size of an American military base outside Vicenza. Both projects are very unpopular in Italy, but they were part of the deal that created the nine-party coalition behind Prodi’s government, and only two senators from the far left defected in the key vote on 21 February.

The government would still have won the vote if senator-for-life Giulio Andreotti had not unexpectedly voted against it. But the 87-year-old Andreotti, seven times prime minister and often known as the “Prince of Darkness,” is a strong supporter of NATO and the American alliance, so why would he vote against that bill? Because it was going to be so close that his surprise “no” vote could bring Prodi’s government down.

Why would he want to do that? Andreotti has always been very close to both the Catholic Church and the Mafia, but on this occasion it was the former tie that mattered. The Vatican wanted to kill the “civil union” proposal, which required killing Prodi’s government. Andreotti just seized the opportunity that presented itself. It worked, too: a week later Prodi managed to revive his coalition government, but this time their agreed programme does not include the “civil union” project.

The normally judicious Peter Popham was so irked by this that he implicitly compared the Pope to Hitler, but it is nonsense to blame all of Italy’s ills on the Vatican. The Catholic Church used to have huge clout in Italian politics, but that is because almost all Italians used to be devout Catholics. It’s still a bit weird to have a tiny sovereign state ruled by a foreigner in the middle of your own capital city, but the Vatican today has no more influence on politics in Italy than the evangelical churches have in the United States. (But no less, either.)

Most Italians would agree that there is something wrong with their country, but it’s not the Church that bothers them. The stagnant economy makes matters worse — even Spain will overtake Italy in per capita income in a couple of years — but there is an underlying sense of frustration that permeates Italian life.

The Byzantine bureaucracy and the ubiquitous corruption are a big part of the problem. Getting a job usually depends on what group, party or family you belong to, not on your abilities, which is hugely frustrating. The core problem is that Italy is not really a modern society at all.

For almost forty years after 1945, while the rest of Europe was growing and changing very fast, Italy grew but didn’t change, because politics and all of society were frozen in a deeply conservative and profoundly corrupt pattern. In order to keep the huge Communist party from winning power and taking Italy out of NATO, the Christian Democratic party had to be kept in power permanently — and it was, thanks to foreign money and foreign intelligence services, to its alliance with the Catholic Church, and to its other alliance with the Mafia.

That system ended fifteen years ago when the Christian Democrats imploded in a blizzard of corruption scandals and Communism simultaneously went out of fashion, but Italians have a lot of lost time to make up.

Moreover, the decision to swap the lira for the euro was a disaster for Italy, because it lost the ability to remain competitive by continually devaluing its currency. Italian politics are still poisonous, the justice system is a joke, and the efforts at reform are endlessly sabotaged by the beneficiaries of the current state of affairs.

But that is about what you’d expect at this stage of the process of modernisation, because it IS a process, and it takes time. Spain is about thirty years into a similar process, dating from the death of Franco and the end of fascism, and it is thriving at every level. Italy is fifteen years in, and feeling the strain. But it will probably get there in the end.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The normally…States”; and “The Byzantine…all”)