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Pope Francis

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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)”)

Punch From the Pope

A little bit of Latin always raises the tone of an article, so here (with thanks to the classical correspondent of The Observer) is a sentence that may prove useful to Pope Francis: “agite tentaque si fortiores vos putatis.” It means “come on then, if you think you’re hard enough.”

It’s the manly thing to say if you have just punched somebody, and he looks like he’s thinking of hitting you back. Francis has recently expressed the view that “if anyone says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch.” So he should be ready for some retaliation, and saying that in Latin might deter the victim from hitting the Supreme Pontiff back.

In real life, of course, the Swiss Guard would give the poor sucker a good kicking for attacking the Pope’s knuckles with his face, and then drag him off to jail. But Francis was not really talking about himself. He was just saying that the satirists of “Charlie Hebdo” who were massacred in Paris last week had it coming.

“It’s normal,” Francis explained. “You cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” He was defending the right of believers of any faith to be exempt from harsh criticism, caricature and indeed any comment that hurts their feelings – and also their right to use violence against those who transgress.

I’m exaggerating, of course. Francis didn’t say that he would shoot the person who insulted his mother, or blow him up. Just punch him, that’s all. (I’m assuming it’s a “him”, since I’m sure the Pope would not punch a woman.) But does he think that violence is justified in defence of the honour of your mother, or your religion? Yes he does. Or if not actually justified, at least quite understandable.

At this point in the discussion, Western journalists normally wander off into an extended debate in which some defend freedom of speech at any cost and others insist that you must refrain from mocking other people’s religious views, either because you shouldn’t hurt their feelings or just because you’re afraid they’ll kill you.

It’s a great opportunity to pontificate about weighty philosophical matters (even the Pontiff himself could not resist it), but it has almost nothing to do with the case at hand: the terrorist attacks in Paris and the various Western responses to them. Or do you really think that the attacks would stop if everybody promised to say only nice things about Islam?

It is unlikely that Said and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly were regular readers of “Charlie Hebdo”. The target was picked for them either directly by some operational controller in al-Qaeda, ISIS, or some other Islamist jihadi group – or, if they were acting independently, then indirectly by the editor of some Islamist website who was highlighting that magazine as particularly insulting to Islam.

The fanatics who run the extremist networks and websites NEED insults to Islam, threats to Islam, attacks on Islam in order to recruit and motivate the impressionable young men and women who will do the actual killing and dying for them. If “Charlie Hebdo” didn’t exist, they’d have found something else. It probably wouldn’t have been quite as crassly insulting as “Charlie”, but it would have served the same purpose.

As a popular slogan on the extremist websites has it, “media is half of jihad.” High-profile targets that will upset the Western public are what they want, and nothing gets the Western media’s attention like an attack on the media.

For most of a week, that one event in Paris – seventeen people killed by three young fools with guns – virtually monopolised international news coverage in the European and North American media. But what was so surprising about it? That you can get Kalashnikovs in Paris? That there are quite a few foolish, lost young Muslim men in Paris? That some of them will be seduced by Islamist propaganda?

This was a small skirmish in a long…I was going to say a long “war”, but actually the strategic objective of France and all the other Western target nations should be to prevent it from turning into a real war. It’s the extremists who want a war in which the West “attacks Islam”, because that is the best and probably the only route that might bring them to power in the Muslim world.

Unfortunately, Western media cannot resist turning stories like the Paris killings into a media circus. To make matters worse, Western leaders cannot resist the temptation to do little pantomimes of defiance for the cameras. “We’re not on our knees. We’re standing tall. In fact, look: we’re bravely walking down the streets together.” As if the terrorists wanted them on their knees.

And so you get the ridiculous demonstration of “solidarity” among forty world leaders that led the march in Paris. At least Barack Obama had the good sense to dodge that event, although he was sharply criticised for it by all the useful idiots at home who think a war with Islam is just what the West needs.

Come to think of it, Pope Francis didn’t go to Paris either. Maybe there’s hope for him yet.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“It is…Islam”; and “For most…propaganda”)