In Inferno, Dante condemns "traitors to their benefactors" in the lowest circle of Hell, trapped under the ice. Satan, portrayed with three mouths, is chewing on three of history's most infamous traitors. Judas, who betrayed Jesus, is in the middle and suffering the most torment. Dante's other two arch-traitors are Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Caesar.
Seven hundred years later, in a shambolic sermon marked by plodding prose far removed from the flights of Dante's poetic eloquence, Pope Francis is blowing hot air over the ice in Inferno, seeking to melt it and rehabilitate Judas as Jesus' "friend."
Judas, head in Lucifer's fetid mouth, must be straining his vocal cords to do a Pavarotti-like rendering of "What a friend we have in Francis." He can feel the ice around him melting. After all, Francis, like an activist attorney in a John Grisham novel, has been pleading his case ever since the Argentinian occupied the throne of St. Peter.
In 2016, Francis shed pontifical tears for Judas. "Perhaps if he had met the Virgin Mary, things would have gone differently, but the poor man goes away, doesn't find a way out of his situation, and he went to hang himself," Francis speculated, attempting the theological equivalent of buying a pig in a poke.
"Perhaps someone might think, 'this pope is a heretic.' But, no! They should go see a particular medieval capital of a column in the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, Burgundy," he gibbered. "On that capital, on one side there is Judas, hanged, but on the other is the Good Shepherd who is carrying him away on his shoulders."
Francis' primary source for doing theology is a medieval comic book, the likes of which were often chiseled by mischievous masons having a bit of fun on the job.
In a 2017 interview with Die Zeit, the pontiff of non-judgmentalism returned to Exhibit A — Fred Flintstone's medieval stone sculpture. Giovanni Lorenzo, the interviewer, asked Francis if God could forgive mass murderers such as Hitler and Stalin. Francis mumbled, "I do not know, it's possible ... I do not know."
Regurgitating his Vézelay comic book theology, Francis laid it on thick: "This was the theology of the Middle Ages, as the monks taught them. The Lord forgives to the end."
Giovanni tried to help Francis escape an embarrassing boo-boo. He asked, "But you must seek forgiveness?" Instead, Francis dug himself deeper into his theological ditch:
I do not claim that Judas is in Heaven and saved. But I do not claim the opposite ... Look at the Bible in which it is said: When Judas becomes conscious of his deed, he goes to the high priests. The Bible uses the word repentance. Perhaps he has not pledged forgiveness, but he has repented.
Does the Holy Father know how medieval images of Judas frequently depict him in characteristically Jewish dress or with stereotypical Jewish features — a repulsive anti-Semitic trope? If Francis is going to source his theology from such ambiguous iconography, he might be in for a stinker from the chief rabbi of Rome on Easter Monday, no?
And is Francis reading the canonical gospels or the gnostic Gospel according to Judas? Twenty-two verses in the New Testament mention Judas Iscariot — not one of them has the technical word metanoia (conversion) for "repentance."
The pontiff issued his most passionate plea for Judas' presidential pardon on Wednesday of Holy Week, leaving Catholics as discombobulated as a possum at a porcupine party.
"How did Judas end? I don't know," Francis asked, quoting Jesus: "Woe to that man from whom the Son of Man is betrayed — better for that man if he had never been born!"
Then, like a high roller at a Las Vegas casino, he slammed down his cards: "Does this mean that Judas is in Hell? I don't know. I look at the Gospel and, He calls him 'friend,' and He kisses him."
Francis needs a good biblical scholar to vet his exegesis. First, Jesus calls Judas "friend" in Matthew's Gospel (27:50). Like many exegetes, Catholic New Testament scholar Raymond Brown in his opus magnum The Death of the Messiah explains that Jesus is using irony. To the irony that Judas greets Jesus with a kiss and says, "Hail, Rabbi!" Jesus responds with equal irony: "Friend, do what you came to do."
Jesus does not use the word for a bosom friend, i.e. philos. Instead, He calls Judas hetairos — comrade or colleague — a term used exclusively by Matthew and always used negatively. In the parable of the wedding banquet (22:1–14), the king in the parable of the wedding banquet asks the man without a wedding suit: "Friend (ἑταῖρε), how did you get in here without a wedding garment?" The king then has the man bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness.
In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (20:1–16), the master of the house goes out a number of times in the day to hire laborers. When one grumbles about equal pay for unequal hours worked, the master replies, "Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Did you not agree with me to work for a denarius?"
Second, Judas does not repent. Matthew uses the Greek verb metameslesthai, not metanoia, to describe his "remorse" or "regret" and this is very occasionally translated as "repent." But most English translations including the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible and the new Catholic Italian Bible say that Judas was "seized with remorse." Big difference!
Brown observes that the "change involved in metameslesthai can be unacceptable to God" (Exodus 13:17). After engaging with scholars who suggest Judas might have been forgiven by God — a view dating back to Origen — Brown argues that this runs counter to Matthew's plot where the death of Judas is described to fulfill Jesus' prediction about him: "Woe to that man ... for whom it would have been better not to have been born" (26:24).
Judas commits the mortal sin of shedding "innocent blood" (Matthew 27:4) — the unpardonable sin of the Old Testament (2 Kings 24:4). "Cursed be whoever accepts bribes to take the life of innocent blood," the Torah had declared (Deuteronomy 27:25). "Judas has done something so heinous that no ordinary repentance affects it," Brown remarks.
While Judas comes to the chief priests, Jesus' enemies, seeking a form of absolution from sin, he does not actually come to Jesus, and "thus one may well suspect that in the psychology of the Matthean story his remorse has not really meant belief," he reasons.
Third, Jesus never kisses Judas. It is Judas who kisses Jesus! But Pope Francis has already made up his mind, so let's not confuse him with the facts.
The twitterati were quick to draw Francis' attention to texts from the gospels which speak of Satan entering Judas. Others tweaked the pontiff's ear using Tradition, reminding Francis that apart from a host of Church fathers, the Catechism of the Council of Trent teaches that Judas "hanged himself, and thus lost soul and body" and is suffering "everlasting destruction."
Pope Francis himself gives us a clue as to why he is offering Judas a full papal indulgence. In 2018, he fiddled with canon 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church declaring the death penalty "inadmissible." In 2019, he called for the abolition of life imprisonment, denouncing it as "penal populism."
Like Michel Foucault, the French pioneer of postmodernism, Francis believes that "there is no glory in punishing" — unless it's Mother Nature punishing us with the Wuhan virus for not halting climate change!
And, despite the later Vatican denial, Pope Francis said in an interview with his "friend" Scalfari: "There is no Hell — there is the disappearance of sinful souls."
So if there's no punishment and no Hell, then everyone will be saved. It doesn't matter if, like Hitler, you commit genocide, annihilating six million Jews, or, like Judas, you commit deicide, slaying one Jew who is the archetypal Isaianic Suffering Servant representing Israel and the Son of God.
Heck, who am I to judge?