Recently, it was reported in an Italian paper, La Republicca, that the Pope has stated that there is no hell, and that all who die in sin and unbelief simply disappear and cease to exist. (To read an article about this, see Cranach, the Blog of Gene E. Veith.) Those who believe are "admitted to the contemplation of God." The description of eternal life is, at best, confusing. I really don't know what that means. It sounds more Hindu than Christian to me. But the denial of hell is much more problematic. Those in the Roman Catholic Church will note that it stands in contradiction to Church tradition, to Church Councils, to the decrees of previous Popes, and to the Roman Catholic Catechism.
I would add the glaring omission: It defies Holy Scripture (cf. Isaiah 66:24; Daniel 12:2; John 5:28-29; Matthew 25:41-46; et al.)
The Roman Catholic faithful are put in a rather difficult position here. While it has been "clarified" by the Vatican that the Pope did not say this or did not mean this, it does not help that Pope Francis has developed a habit of saying things that are so vague and confusing that we find such reports of a reversal of Roman Catholic teaching on his part to be quite believable. After all, according to the Roman Catholic Church itself, what the Pope teaches ex cathedra ("from the chair", that is, in his official position as Pope) is infallible. He cannot err. So if he reverses the teaching of the Roman Church, some Pope must have erred in the past or the current Pope has erred.
Full disclosure: The reporter who referred to his conversation with Pope Francis was not conducting an official interview. He did not take notes or record anything. He was "reconstructing" his conversation with the Pope, making his statements about the Pope's words highly suspect. And since the reporter is an avowed atheist, there is reason to believe his report may be biased or simply wrong. Still Pope Francis' track record does not help his own cause. And for what it is worth, I do not consider this recollection of a conversation between Pope Francis and an atheist reporter to taken too seriously.
What is to be taken seriously, however, is what the Church deems to be the final authority in its doctrine and practice. For the Roman Catholic Church, the answer is the Pope. He is declared to be the sole interpreter of Scripture. (Although it seems that Vatican officials are more important right now in giving the official understanding of Pope Francis' vague statements.) But what happens when a Pope decrees something that stands in direct contrast to official Roman Catholic teaching? The answer usually given is that the Pope did not speak ex cathedra. But, who determines when the Pope does speak ex cathedra? Does a committee decide this? And when the Pope does speak ex cathedra and it stands in contrast to the Bible, does that mean we are supposed to dismiss the Bible on that point? And if the Bible can be overruled by Papal decree, how much of the Bible can be dismissed? (After all, a later Pope may decree that a certain teaching has been reversed.)
Here is a very practical example. Can an atheist be saved and go to heaven? Here is the official Roman Catholic teaching: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.” --Lumen Gentium, chapter 2, par. 16 (November 21, 1964, by Pope Paul VI)
Here is what the Bible teaches: "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in his is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:17-18) And: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)
So, which is right? That there is no salvation outside of Jesus, or that there is salvation outside of Jesus? Either Pope VI is right, or the Bible is right. One is in error, and one is not. Both can't be true. So which is it? The answer is crucial, don't you think?
Martin Luther was hardly the first to state that the Bible is the sole authority of the Church. So, when Lutherans confess sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) as the authority of the Church, we are not on a island. Nor are we insisting that Martin Luther or any other man is our final authority. Our sole authority is the word of God. Therefore, we let God speak for himself. God does not lie. God does not change. God does not speak in deceptive words or use vague terms. Granted, that has not prohibited people from twisting his words or presenting conflicting interpretations; but the fault lies with man, not with God. Man often uses his reason or his emotions to interpret what God really means, which turns man into his own Pope in being his own interpreter of Scripture.
But the Bible does not need to be interpreted, just read. And while some passages are not as clear as others, that is not to say that there is nothing clear in the Bible. The Bible is amazingly clear. Hard passages will find their interpretation from clearer passages. In this way, the Bible remains the authority, not me or you with our own interpretation of it.
The issue is of utmost importance, since our eternal salvation rests on it. How do you know you are saved? Is it the decree of a Pontiff in Rome who does not even know you (which is official Catholic teaching), or is it the word of the God whose work it is to save you? Popes have changed official teachings over the centuries. Jesus Christ has not.
That is why the authority of the Church always stands on the word of God which has been revealed and recorded in the Bible. Since the word of God stands firm forever, so does our confidence.