Pope Francis is once again under a global spotlight for reported comments to a journalist that conflict with 2,000-year-old Roman Catholic doctrine.
This time, veteran Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist, is reporting the pope declared “hell doesn’t exist, the disappearance of the souls of sinners exists.”
The Vatican immediately issued a statement claiming that what is reported in an article Thursday on the website of the Italian leftist newspaper La Repubblica is the author’s own “reconstruction” of the pope’s words, reported the Catholic News Agency.
The Holy See said Scalfari, 93, had a “private meeting for the occasion of Easter, however without giving him any interview.”
“What is reported by the author in today’s article is the result of his reconstruction, in which the literal words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted,” the Vatican statement said. “No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”
The Catholic News Agency said it was not the first time Scalfari has misrepresented the pope’s words following a private audience.
In November 2013, the journalist admitted that at least some of the words he had published a month prior that stirred controversy “were not shared by the Pope himself.”
Scalfari has said that all his interviews have been conducted without a recording device and without taking notes while the person is speaking, CNA reported.
“I try to understand the person I am interviewing, and after that I write his answers with my own words,” Scalfari explained to reporters in November 2013.
He conceded it was possible that “some of the pope’s words I reported, were not shared by Pope Francis.”
CNA noted Francis has previously spoken about the existence of hell in public speeches. At a prayer vigil in March 2014, for example, he said that members of the mafia should change their lives “while there is still time, so that you do not end up in hell. That is what awaits you if you continue on this path.”
However, Francis, the first Jesuit to become a pope, has stirred controversy from the beginning of his papacy in 2013 regarding his stance on many Catholic doctrines.
In September 2013, many traditional Catholic commentators came to his defense when it was reported he indicated homosexual behavior is acceptable and people don’t need to believe in God to get to heaven.
His defenders insisted the pope had been taken out of context or misunderstood by a largely post-Christian Western world.
Nevertheless, it already was evident at that time that Francis had struck a new, conciliatory tone on issues such as homosexuality, abortion and the role of women. And later, in an interview, he declared, “I have never been a right-winger,” making it clear that the Roman Catholic Church needed to change the way it communicated with the world.
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis said in an interview for 16 Jesuit publications around the world. “Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen immediately weighed in as establishment media seized on the pope’s comments on social issues with headlines such as CNN’s “Pope Francis: Church can’t ‘interfere’ with gays.”
Allen insisted “the pope was not breaking with traditional doctrine but trying to shift the church’s emphasis from condemnation to mercy.”
Some U.S. bishops, however, were publicly lamenting that Francis had not made strong pronouncements about abortion and homosexuality.
The Associated Press noted the widely held perception that, by contrast, Francis’ immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were “both intellectuals for whom doctrine was paramount.”
Raymond Arroyo, lead anchor of the global Catholic television network EWTN, a prominent Catholic commentator on politics and faith, insisted the remark was misunderstood by establishment media. He argued Francis initially said during the interview with Die Zeit that “optional celibacy” is “not the solution” to the priest shortage in the West.
“People often forget that there are married clergy in Catholicism’s Eastern rites — and have been for centuries,” Arroyo said. “This is a discipline in the Western Church and one that has real merit. Even Billy Graham has observed the importance of a man being single-mindedly devoted to his flock and the challenges of raising a family while shepherding a church.”