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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178 thoughts on “What Pope Francis really said about atheists

  1. RJP says:

    People will believe whatever they want, including the Pope. Unless you were there with Jesus himself, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You think you do, but you don’t. Hope you all sleep comfortable believing you’re saved and going to Heaven, and better than people who don’t believe what you believe. I won’t be back to this site, so reply if you must, but I’ll just smile and think about y’all piling over yourselves to prove something.

  2. Erin says:

    The Pope is an amazing person, and also quoting “Whom am I to judge” gives hope to people on this Earth knowing they are too Children of God. God bless you Pope, Francis. Praise the Lord Jesus Christ!

  3. cdk says:

    “There is no salvation outside RCC”? Who said that? Vatican? Your Dogmas? The bible says there is no salvation WITHOUT JESUS. WITHOUT FAITH. Which has more authority? Vatican or the Bible?

    1. Mkq says:

      Yes, As Christ said to peter our first pope, “That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”. RCC is the way to salvation. Belonging to RCC is the same way as belonging to Christ.

      1. se says:

        Jesus Christ is the way to Salvation! No other way.. Their not the same.. Why can’t you go Directly to Jesus Christ for the light and truth.. Go to your Bible – It’s purely God’s word

  4. elijah says:

    The bible says those who believe and trust in him. remember John 3:16 “…that whose ever believeth in him should not perish..” wait a second, those who believe will not perish not all.. well if the atheist didn’t believe, you know the answer.. John 1:12 those who receive Him(Jesus Christ) to them gave a power or rights to become the sons of God. that’s the only way.. Jesus is the only way.

    1. se says:

      Yup I agree! John 14:6 – Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” If Atheist do not believe that Jesus is the way, there’s no way they will be saved, enter heaven and meet Father God..Please do not be deceived! Matthew 7:13 – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” Many people will believe non-biblical words that is comfortable to live with and end up in Hell(destruction). Jesus is the only mediator of man to Father God!(1 Tim 2:5) – Jesus is the Narrow gate – Few will be brave enough to enter through it – to totally surrender their lives to Jesus and follow Him! to live a holy life – daily repentance and sanctification.. Please do not fall to prosperity gospels(uses the verse from the bible to fit their want to be lifestyle) that mainly focuses on how to be blessed and your best life now.. If you sow here on earth a life without Jesus, then after you die you’ll reap a life without Jesus too w/c is Hell..

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