any Christian or secular conservative who cares about the stability of Western civilization cannot be indifferent to the fate of the institution that, more than any other, created it. The Orthodox Church is alien to the West, and Protestantism has become far too fragmented and rootless to hold things together.
That is a big burden for Rome to bear. But it also represents a much bigger problem. For a church that ministers a gospel based on a person (and God) who never set foot in the West, your identification with the West may be the hugest (thanks Bernie!!) version of cultural Christianity eh-veh. (Imagine Mormonism without upstate New York and you have a speck of Rome’s burden.) I understand that many Protestants envy Rome’s cultural and historical footprint. Some even become Roman Catholic for the wide swath the communion appears to give.
But, non-Western lives matter too.
On the flip side, when you have your religious identity so bound up with a culture or civilization, you set yourself up for the kind of inevitable cultural adaptation that Protestant modernists created and embraced. You need to do this to keep up with the culture of which you are part since civilizations have never been one-way, top-down endeavors. Today it’s emperors, tomorrow it will be senates and republics. Today it’s Thomism, tomorrow its Kantianism. Today it’s Baroque, tomorrow it’s Bauhaus.
Even more of a problem: today it’s hell, tomorrow its annihilationism. So when Pope Francis flirts with denying the existence of hell, Michael Brendan Dougherty notices about today’s Vatican what fundamentalists used to observe about Protestant modernists:
Because, as I write on Maundy Thursday, his favorite Italian journalist, Eugenio Scalfari, is reporting his latest conversation with Francis. In his reconstruction of their conversation, Scalfari has the pope saying that souls who have not repented and therefore have not received God’s pardon simply scomparire — disappear, in English. In other words, there is no hell. The souls of the damned aren’t damned, they just are no more.
The Vatican promptly put out a statement that the interview is a reconstruction of their conversation, not a series of direct quotes. But the Vatican also pointedly issued no specific denial of any of the pope’s words. Amazing to say it, but that’s typical. In essence this constitutes an invitation to disbelieve whatever you want. Predictably, Catholic media who rely on the pope’s star power and the appearance of impeccability put out stories noting that the pope has often talked about hell in the past and that, by the way, Scalfari is an atheist and unreliable narrator. Frankly, I find the Vatican’s position revoltingly underhanded. It refuses to tell us whether the pope said these things, and encourages us to believe what we want. It incentivizes the pope’s defenders to defame Scalfari as a fraud and an underhanded atheist. What kind of game is this? It shouldn’t be hard to just tell the truth about this, yet it is.
This is the fifth interview the pope has done with Scalfari, and far from the first scandal to come out of it. It is impossible to believe that someone as earthy as Francis is still innocent of what’s happening here. Yes, he’s talked about hell as a reality before. But the whole intellectual culture of Catholic seminaries and formation is filled with doublespeak. Doctrines are proclaimed in creedal statements, and then their contents are emptied in theological essays, or given a completely opposite interpretation in “practical” application. I can’t possibly pretend any longer that Francis is immune from this culture of deception, including self-deception.