One Hell of a Problem: Pope Francis Tells the Truth and Gets in Trouble

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St. John Fisher at St. John Fisher College. From The Masks of Eternity: a montage on the art of idolatry

A graduate of St. John Fisher College, George Cassidy Payne is a freelance writer, domestic violence counselor, and a SUNY adjunct professor of philosophy. He has graduate training in theology from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

One Hell of a Problem: Pope Francis Tells the Truth and Gets in Trouble

Regarding the latest Pope Francis controversy — this time over his purported comments on the nonexistence of hell to an atheistic Italian journalist — I think the bigger matter is not about Francis’ beliefs, the right of a Pope to have his own theological positions, or current dissent within the Church’s upper echelon.¹ The real issue seems to be why so many Christians desire a hell in the first place. Why does this myth have so much power, especially given the message of absolute love and forgiveness that is embodied in the ministry of Jesus? I mean really, what can be accomplished once a sinner has had all of the sin tortured out of them? Why would an all powerful and all good Creator design such a place? How is it righteous and just that finite crimes can be met with infinite punishment?

Francis is an intellectual. As such he knows that this conventional, illogical, Dantean hell is not only a physical absurdity but an abomination to the real God. Francis knows that the concept of hell that satisfies people’s desire for justice is not the type of redemption that brings lasting peace. He also knows that the type of hell people have invented in their minds is the same kind of hell that they inflict on each other with their everyday pettiness and brutality. Hell of this kind is appallingly real. One need only open the newspaper, flip on CNN, or poke around the corner.

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Life size cut out of Pope Francis. From Rochester leaves its footprint on La Marche Globale

That said, if the concept of hell means something hidden, each day that one lives with a secret that steals their identity, they are in hell. Each day that one accepts a lie about what their purpose is, they are in hell. Each day that one sacrifices their humanity to become less than what they could be, they are in hell. What if Francis meant hell is the ultimate state of being hidden? Hell is total separation from God. Hell is total separation from who we were created to be. There can be no greater separation than vanishing out of existence all together. (Lets leave Heidegger out of this.)

Not to be pedantic but the catechism actually states: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Going further, this Catholic bible of the Bible decrees that, “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

So what is the real problem? Is it Francis’ theology or Christians who want there to be a place of eternal physical torment after one dies? Not for themselves of course, but for others. What about this version of hell is rooted in a human tendency to seek revenge instead of justice? What about this version of hell is based on humanity’s most vulnerable fears about not being rewarded after death? I cannot be sure. But it is a question worth asking before lacerating the Pope’s alleged views on the matter. After all, didn’t Jesus of Nazareth say:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

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¹ In “Does Hell Exist? And Did the Pope Give an Answer?” (NYTIMES, 3/30/18),

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