Atheists Can Go To Heaven? Did Pope Francis Say Something New?

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Some folks in the mainstream media are worked up because Pope Francis actually said that an atheist might go to heaven.  His remarks, from an article in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, are being hyped as an example of Francis’s striking out on a new path, one different from that of his papal predecessors.  Here is a story from the UK Telegraph, linked from the Drudge Report.  This is the relevant portion quoted in the story:

The Pope wrote: “The question for those who do not believe in God is to follow their own conscience. Sin, even for a non-believer, is when one goes against one’s conscience.  To listen and to follow your conscience means that you understand the difference between good and evil.”  He said that the “mercy of God has no limits” and encompassed even non-believers.

Did the pope really say something new here?  Is he really opening up the Church in a way that departs from its past teaching?  Not really.  Here is one of the opening paragraphs from John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor:

Pope Francis speaks to reporters aboard his plane while returning to Rome from World Youth Day. (AP Photo/Luca Zennaro, Pool)

Pope Francis speaks to reporters aboard his plane while returning to Rome from World Youth Day. (AP Photo/Luca Zennaro, Pool)

The Church knows that the issue of morality is one which deeply touches every person; it involves all people, even those who do not know Christ and his Gospel or God himself. She knows that it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all.The Second Vatican Council clearly recalled this when it stated that “those who without any fault do not know anything about Christ or his Church, yet who search for God with a sincere heart and under the influence of grace, try to put into effect the will of God as known to them through the dictate of conscience… can obtain eternal salvation”. The Council added: “Nor does divine Providence deny the helps that are necessary for salvation to those who, through no fault of their own, have not yet attained to the express recognition of God, yet who strive, not without divine grace, to lead an upright life. For whatever goodness and truth is found in them is considered by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel and bestowed by him who enlightens everyone that they may in the end have life”

The Telegraph also detects a change in the incoming Vatican Secretary of State’s remark that celibacy for the clergy is not a matter of Catholic doctrine:

In a further sign that the Church is edging towards more openness, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, a Vatican diplomat who will next month become the Pope’s deputy as secretary of state, said that the principle of celibacy among clergy was “ecclesiastical tradition” rather than “Church dogma” and therefore open to discussion.

The Church is changing, “edging towards openness,” because a Vatican official stated what every informed Catholic already knows and has known since long before Francis became pope?

Lesson: journalists are not competent to say what is new in the Church if they have never in the first place bothered to learn what the Church has traditionally taught.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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