A conservative U.S. Catholic cardinal has said that despite the Vatican's attempted clarification, Pope Francis' recent comments challenging the belief in Hell represent a "profound scandal" for Catholics around the world.
Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, who was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI but removed as head of the Vatican's highest court by Pope Francis in 2014, told Italian Catholic news agency La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana on Thursday that the denial of Hell is "beyond tolerable."
"What happened with the latest interview given to Eugenio Scalfari during Holy Week and made public on Holy Thursday was beyond tolerable," Burke said, as translated by the Catholic Herald.
"That a famous atheist claims to announce a revolution in the teaching of the Catholic Church, believing to speak in the name of the pope, denying the immortality of the human soul and the existence of Hell, has been a source of profound scandal not only for many Catholics but also for many lay people who respect the Catholic Church and its teachings, even if they do not share them," he added.
The cardinal is referring to Francis' interview with 93-year-old atheist philosopher Eugenio Scalfari in La Republica, where the Catholic Church leader reportedly said that "Hell does not exist" and that "those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear."
The Vatican later denied that Francis used those exact words, and said that the interview was, in part, a "reconstruction" by Scalfari.
"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 Holy See explained.
"No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father," it added.
Burke said that the Vatican's response has been "strongly inadequate," however.
"Instead of clearly re-stating the truth about the immortality of the human soul and Hell, the denial only said that some of the words quoted are not of the pope," the conservative cleric stated.
"It did not say that the erroneous, even heretical ideas expressed by these words are not shared by the pope and that the pope repudiates such ideas as contrary to the Catholic faith," he added.
"This playing with faith and doctrine, at the highest level of the Church, rightfully leaves priests and faithful scandalized."
Scalfari, a close friend of Francis, has interviewed the pontiff on a number of occasions, producing controversial headlines that the Vatican has had to clarify on a number of occasions.
In one instance in 2013, Francis apparently told Scalfari that evangelism is "solemn nonsense," though Holy See spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said at the time that the quote may not be accurate.