What Pope Francis really said about atheists

Pope Francis raised a lot of eyebrows Wednesday after saying all people who do good works, including atheists, are going to heaven.

At least, that’s how the Huffington Post interpreted Pope Francis’ Wednesday morning homily.

Here’s what Pope Francis really said about atheists:

Pope Francis

Stephen Driscoll / CNA

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter  that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there. [Read more here]

Apparently, HuffPo doesn’t understand the difference between redemption and salvation because here’s how they reported on the pope’s remarks:

Pope Francis rocked some religious and atheist minds today when he declared that everyone was redeemed through Jesus, including atheists…

Of course, not all Christians believe that those who don’t believe will be redeemed, and the Pope’s words may spark memories of the deep divisions from the Protestant reformation over the belief in redemption through grace versus redemption through works.

Reuters interpreted the pope’s comments in a similar way:

Atheists should be seen as good people if they do good, Pope Francis said on Wednesday in his latest urging that people of all religions – or no religion – work together…

He told the story of a Catholic who asked a priest if even atheists had been redeemed by Jesus.

“Even them, everyone,” the pope answered, according to Vatican Radio. “We all have the duty to do good,” he said.

“Just do good and we’ll find a meeting point,” the pope said in a hypothetical conversation in which someone told a priest…

Francis’ reaching out to atheists and people who belong to no religion is a marked contrast to the attitude of former Pope Benedict, who sometimes left non-Catholics feeling that he saw them as second-class believers.

No more than an hour went by and an inquisitive Presbyterian friend of mine emailed me with a link to the HuffPo story. “So doing good on its own is enough for salvation in Catholicism?” he asked. In response, I sent him two links that clarified the pope’s words.

The first link I sent him was this blog post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker. Here is what he wrote:

The Pope is simply affirming certain truths that any somewhat knowledgable Catholic will uphold.

First, that Christ died to redeem the whole world. We can distinguish his redemptive work from the acceptance of salvation. He redeemed the whole world. However, many will reject that saving work. In affirming the universality of Christ’s redemptive work we are not universalists. To say that he redeemed the whole world is not to conclude that all will be saved.

Secondly, the Pope is also affirming that all humans are created in God’s image and are therefore created good. Yes, created good, but that goodness is wounded by original sin.

Thirdly, he is affirming that all men and women are obliged to pursue what is beautiful, good and true. Natural virtue is possible–even obligatory, but natural virtue on its own is not sufficient for salvation. Grace is necessary to advance beyond natural virtue to bring the soul to salvation. The Pope does not say atheists being good on their own will be saved. He says they, like all men, are redeemed by Christ’s death and their good works are the starting place where we can meet with them–the implication being “meet with them in an encounter that leads eventually to faith in Christ.

The second link I sent him was this one from Catholicism.org’s Brian Kelly, who was actually writing in response to a Catholic Online article whose headline read: “Pope Francis says atheists can do good and go to heaven too!”

Here is what Mr. Kelly said in response:

Pope Francis did not say that an atheist who does naturally good things can be saved if he dies an atheist. Yet that is the impression given by Catholic Online’s half truth headline…

The Pope… simply reminded the faithful that there can be, and is, goodness, or natural virtue, outside the Church. And that Christ’s death on the Cross redeemed all men. He paid the price so that every man could come to God and be saved.

If Catholic Online is insinuating that Pope Francis has “reformed” the irreformable dogma, outside the Church there is no salvation, then that is shameful and disingenuous.

At the end of the day, could Pope Francis have been a little clearer about what he was trying to say? Sure. That’s the risk of delivering off the cuff sermons. The real fault, I think, lies with the theologically-illiterate press corps, whose understanding of basic Catholic doctrine is so infinitesimal that it is increasingly unable to report on the Catholic Church without completely embarrassing itself.

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130 thoughts on “What Pope Francis really said about atheists

  1. Macrina Herrera says:

    Jesus said ” Thou shalt love thy
    God and thy neighbor as thyself.”

    This pope is saying “Love thy neighbor and loving God will take take care of itself. See you in heaven”

    There is a big difference here which is not sitting well with me. The lives of the saints all
    show them loving God first
    and by doing so, received the grace of loving their neighbor.

  2. Jeff Bowden says:

    For who shall call upon the Name of Jesus Christ and believe that he died and rose again Shall be saved.
    Enough said

  3. Seth says:

    I refuse to believe, as does one of my Christian friends does, that only saved Christians will be redeemed. I live in a place where some religious zealots believe Catholics are going to hell because they worship The Virgin Mary. They think it is idolatry. One man actually said to me that everyone who isn’t a Christian (Meaning according to his beliefs.) is going to hell! I asked him: So millions of Hindus, even if they love God and are righteous, are condemned”? He answered, “Yes.” What struck me about his answer was the tone of his voice. There was no sadness in his words. As a christian, this would make me grieve and pray for everyone’s redemption. There is much I do not understand but I feel that the Pope’s words come from divine inspiration: From God himself.

    Joseph Campbell, in one of his lectures, said that if we don’t see we all worship the same God, but with different names that relate to local cultures, we will end up blowing ourselves up. And for the first time in history, we have this capacity. Even the name Jesus, is a translation of a translation. We are judged by our love for God and our fellow man, not by the name we use for God.

    We are not here to judge anybody, including professed atheists. Jesus knows what’s in everyone’s heart and possesses wisdom beyond our comprehension. Can anyone imagine that he would punish someone for being filled with doubt? Even Jesus, while being crucified, had a moment of doubt. He uttered the saddest words ever ever heard. In a loud voice he said: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27.45-50 “King James Version.

  4. whether they call it declaration or whatever, this man is right. Yeah what ever. For heaven being real it must not be control by any body on earth rather will have only one PRINCIPLE and GOAL which must be BE GOOD TO ONE ANOTHER.

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