After Pope Francis was cited by an Italian journalist as saying that Hell doesn’t exist, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the U.K. took to the BBC to say that what Francis may have had in mind is the imagery of Hell as a place of endless fire and torment, which, the cardinal insisted, “has never been part of Catholic teaching.”
“The image of fire and brimstone and all that has never been part of Catholic teaching. It’s been part of Catholic iconography, Christian iconography, but it’s never been part of teaching,” Nichols said on Friday.
“In fact, you know, there’s nowhere in Catholic teaching that says any one person is in Hell,” Nichols said. “St. Augustine had the wonderful expression of the man committing suicide, ‘Between the bridge and the water, the mercy of God can get in’.”
That said, Nichols did affirm the existence of Hell as part of Catholic belief.
“The existence [of Hell] is a straightforward consequence of our freedom of choice,” he said. “All that Catholic teaching says is that if a person makes a final, deliberate, irrevocable decision to reject any notion, any response, any willingness to be open to God, that’s a definitive decision that separates them from God.”
In response to the question “So, what happens?” Nichols replied, “Who knows?”
The fracas over what the Church teaches on Hell broke out on Friday, when the Italian newspaper La Repubblica published a front-page essay by its founder, 93-year-old Eugenio Scalfari, a self-described non-believer, describing a conversation he’d recently had with Pope Francis. It was the fifth time the two men have met since Francis’s election in 2013.
In it, Scalfari says he asked Francis what happens to the souls of sinners, and described the pontiff’s response as, “A Hell doesn’t exist, what exists is the disappearance of sinning souls.”
Not long afterwards, the Vatican issued a statement casting doubt on the legitimacy of the quotation.
Spokesman Greg Burke said Scalfari’s piece was “the fruit of his own reconstruction,” in which the pope’s words “are not cited textually,” and warned that it “should not be considered as a faithful transcript of the Holy Father’s words.”
Even before the statement, the alleged citation struck many observers as odd, since Francis actually speaks of Hell and the Devil quite openly.
In 2017 at the famed Marian shrine of Fatima, the pope said, “Our Lady foretold, and warned us about, a way of life that is godless and indeed profanes God in his creatures. Such a life – frequently proposed and imposed – risks leading to Hell.”