Of course, if it’s true that no one goes to hell, another reason could be that everyone goes to heaven. Posed as a possibility, that proposition, though contested, does have a place in Catholic theology. Its leading proponent is Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–88), honored by popes including his friend Joseph Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI. The argument for universal salvation begins with the recognition that no one can presume to know God’s final judgment of anyone. While we cannot dismiss the possibility or perhaps even probability that many are damned to hell, an eternal existence in which they are deprived of God’s presence, we have a duty to hope that “all may be saved” (see 1 Tim. 2:4), as Balthasar suggests in the title of his most famous book.
But the terse remark attributed to Francis earlier this week is nothing like that. If he believes that the souls of the unsaved simply vanish at death, he should elaborate. Does he have an argument? From reason? From Scripture? From observation of nature? Resorting to what has become a customary practice for the director of the Holy See Press Office, Greg Burke said that the interview in La Republicca was not “a faithful transcript.” That is, he cast doubt on the accuracy of the language attributed to the pope but wouldn’t deny — or confirm — that the substance of what Francis told the interviewer, Eugenio Scalfari, lined up with the words that Scalfari put inside quotation marks. (In fairness to Burke: He wasn’t there with Francis and Scalfari, so how would he know?)