Burying hellish news

hellStop the presses! Pope Benedict XVI says he believes that Jesus Christ was a real person and that he died for our sins and that he was raised from the dead and is alive today! Oh, and he also believes hell is a real place and not some symbol intended to stir up Christians! This piece by Richard Owen of The Times does contain some genuine news, but the breathless headline "Pope says hell and damnation are real and eternal" lacks the all-important news hook.

The news in this story isn't that Benedict is speaking in what seems to be an informal style, but that it signals a more significant change in the Vatican's theological pronouncements:

Addressing a parish gathering in a northern suburb of Rome, the Pope said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to "admit blame and promise to sin no more", they risked "eternal damnation -- the inferno".

Hell "really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more".

The Pope, who as cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was head of Catholic doctrine, noted that "forgiveness of sins" for those who repented was a cornerstone of Christian belief.

My favorite part of this story is when Owen calls up the Pope's representatives at the Vatican for a clarification of his words. We're told that Benedict was "speaking in 'straightforward' language 'like a parish priest.'" The Pope also wanted to "reinforce the new Catholic catechism," which says that hell should be understood physically rather than symbolically.

Perhaps the news in this story is buried at the bottom?

In 1999 Pope John Paul II said heaven was "neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but that fullness of communion with God, which is the goal of human life".

Hell, by contrast, was "the ultimate consequence of sin itself. Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy".

In October the Pope indicated that limbo, supposed since medieval times to be a "halfway house" between heaven and hell, was "only a theological hypothesis" and not a "definitive truth of the faith".

So rather than writing that the Pope believes that hell is a real place, tell us how this type of statement signifies a change in the Vatican's position on the afterlife. And what does this mean, since John Paul appointed him the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

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