Why Catholics Are Still Unclear About the Pope’s Agenda
Third Apostolic Exhortation of this papacy helps refute the story that Francis denied the existence of hell — but not everyone is at ease
Catholics concerned about the perceived modernism of Pope Francis — particularly with what he recently appeared to say about the existence of hell — may have been breathing a sigh of relief all this week over the release of “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), the pontiff’s third Apostolic Exhortation.
Or maybe not.
The outcry began nearly two weeks ago, after Eugenio Scalfari, an avowed atheist and co-founder of the daily newspaper La Repubblica, met privately with Francis and emerged with a whopper of a story: The Holy Father denied hell exists.
Scalfari, 93, generally boasts of interviewing without recording the exchanges or even taking notes. And he’s interviewed the pope a number of times before, as LifeZette has reported.
Knowing all of this, perhaps people in the Vatican ought to have considered recording such meetings or exchanges themselves.
The Vatican issued a statement on March 29 that the pope had indeed received Scalfari, but that he gave no interview. "The reference made by the author of [the] article is the fruit of his reconstruction, in which the precise words pronounced by the pope are not quoted," the statement read. "Therefore, no extract from the aforementioned article should be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father."
And the pope's Apostolic Exhortation actually discussed the devil and his ways extensively — and used the word "hell."
Still, Catholics remain mixed about the pontiff's agenda. One previous exhortation does not encourage the faithful to give the benefit of the doubt — and neither do pleas about climate change or the unmitigated flow of immigration, legal or otherwise.
Compared to an earlier exhortation, "Amoris Laeticia" ("The Joy of Love"), the latest exhortation looks reassuring. That 2016 document had prompted accusations of heresy in a so-called filial correction signed by more than 60 Catholic theologians, priests and academics.
Among their concerns were "its suggestion that divorced Catholics who remarried in civil ceremonies still could receive Communion," according to Religion News Service. But some commentators bristled at the new exhortation, too.
Rev. James Bretzke, a theologian at Boston College, wondered on Twitter whether one passage of "Gaudete et Exsultate" in particular could be a "warning to EWTN and Church Militant" — outlets that call it as they see it in their reporting.
"Even in Catholic media," read the pontiff's exhortation, "limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned." The pope ended the paragraph this way: "Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all things ablaze" (James 3:6).
"It will not make liturgy traditionalists very happy," said Bretzke to The Washington Post. "He's saying to these people that they might be falling into contemporary versions of ancient heresies."
Meghan J. Clark, a theologian at St. John's University, lauded "Gaudete et Exsultate" in a piece for the Jesuit-run America magazine — whose editor, Rev. James Martin, also praised it. "There is a deep simplicity at the heart of Pope Francis' new exhortation: We are called to become more fully who we are, the people of God. The call to holiness is at once personal and communal — pushing us to actively build the kingdom of God."
Not to be outdone, Michael Davies, U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald, tweeted in support of those who question the pope's sincerity. "To those who dismiss Francis's critics out of hand: Imagine falling madly in love with the church and her traditions, only to have the Holy Father call you a punctilious neo-Pelagian. What part of filial loyalty means we have to stand by and cop that abuse?"