Pope Francis Did Not Say Hell Does Not Exist: Vatican

Call it fake news, or maybe just wishful thinking.

A Thursday story claiming that Pope Francis had denied the existence of hell spread like, well, hellfire. In an alleged interview for Italian journal La Repubblica, the pope told atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari that bad souls "are not punished" and that "There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls."

The story, which would have fundamentally changed the foundations of one of the oldest institution in the world, was picked up by The Drudge Report and a number of high-profile publications, including Newsweek. But the Vatican says the story was fabricated.

The pope did meet with Scalfari, but he did not grant him an interview, said Vatican spokesperson Thomas Rosica. The Vatican called the article, "the fruit of his reconstruction," and "No quotes of the aforementioned article should therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the Holy Father's words," according to a statement received by the National Catholic Reporter.

The pope did take a private audience with Scalfari, who at 93 is mostly retired, the Vatican said. But the pair only exchanged Easter greetings and the conversation was friendly in nature, not an interview.

Pope Francis speaks during the Holy Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday on March 29, 2018 at St Peter's basilica in Vatican. The Vatican denied rumors that the pope dismissed the existence of a hell on Thursday. MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images

Scalfari, an avowed atheist and the co-founder of La Repubblica, has had several phone calls and in-person meetings with Pope Francis and has said he does not record them or take notes. Afterwards, he recreates the talks from memory, including the quotations he uses.

The method got Scalfari in trouble in 2014, when the Vatican called fake news on his claim that Pope Francis said two percent of the Catholic Church's priests were pedophiles.

The Catholic Church currently affirms the existence of an eternal hell. The Catechism of the church says, "Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, 'eternal fire.' The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs."

In 2015, the pope told a group of children in Rome that hell is "telling God, 'You take care of yourself because I'll take care of myself.' They don't send you to hell, you go there because you choose to be there. Hell is wanting to be distant from God because I do not want God's love. This is hell. Do you understand?" On another occasion in 2014, he urged members of the Mafia to convert because "there is still time for not ending up in hell. It is what is waiting for you if you continue on this path."

Pope Francis got on with his Easter activities in spite of the hellish rumors, and washed the feet of 12 Italian prisoners during his Holy Thursday mass. He told the prisoners that he plans to have surgery next year to correct his vision, and asked them to conduct their own "cataract surgery for the soul," according to the Associated Press.