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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199 thoughts on “What Pope Francis really said about atheists

  1. KMalerich says:

    Is this the false prophet? You don’t ‘earn’ redemption. It is given freely by grace but you must ask for it. I’m thinking not too many atheists are asking for redemption and forgiveness.

  2. Teresa says:

    …”for by GRACE (unmerited favor just as a child of a king…we didn’t deserve it, and we certainly did not achieve it) you have been saved through FAITH; NOT by your own good works, otherwise you would be prideful and brag n boast that you saved yourself. It is a GIFT of GOD. For we are His workmanship (he molded and breathed life into our lungs), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which GOD prepared you beforehand (ordained before your birth) so that we would walk in them.” Ephesians 2:8-9.

    “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God”. Romans 3:11
    We do not bring good works to Jesus, He brings them to us.

    …5But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. 7He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.…
    For all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to His own way and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

    Therefore, the grace that draws us to Him is a gift just as much as the faith is a gift from God. God has to awaken our dead hearts and God has to give sight to our blind eyes and understanding to our darkened minds.

    “The God of this world (satan) has blinded the mind of the unbeliever so that the light of the Glory of the Gospel cannot shine in him”…. 2 Corinthians 2:4. This is the reason the vast majority of the world is on a highway to hell literally. They cannot see the truth because of the blinders on their eyes. But Jesus was the lamb upon the altar that took the blame for the atrocious sins of humanity.

    The whole work of salvation is a miracle of God. “Salvation is of The Lord”. Jonah 2

  3. Joe says:

    Perhaps all of us, Catholics, atheists and everyone in between needs to be reminded of the powerful message of Jesus of Nazareth, Christ or not. See the following.
    http://wurdsfromtheburbs.blogspot.com/2015/02/an-atheist-for-christ.html

  4. Patti says:

    Thank God. Pope Francis speaks such sense. Without the aura of been bigoted. The bigoted mantle is hard to shrug off amongst R.C. That is of course there is a heaven and a God at all .

  5. Noel Tabu says:

    I’ll give another credit score to Pope Francis on his popularity ratings. Pope Francis said in his homely that the atheist are also going to heaven, and many conservative catholic react, I was born catholic baptize and married in catholic church, but since I read some history books my life change, my view and faith in catholic change a lot and I continued researching about the history human race and religion, I’m not atheist (not yet) Atheist people are good and they have broad minded seeking the truth the real history of the world that never teach in our school. Our history subject that teaches us is very brief,.
    I don’t judge people who don’t believe in catholic religion and the God they are not sinner they are good people.

  6. Steve says:

    The doctrines of the Church are just signposts, glimmers of a reality we cannot fully comprehend. While they are important guides to living in faith, not even the Pope would say the Church fully knows the mind of God.

    Remember when Jesus cast the demons out of Legion and threw them into a herd of pigs who ran themselves off of a cliff? That herd of pigs was some guy’s business, his livelihood. Jesus destroyed it to save one man. How would you feel if God took down Apple or GM to save one soul? We’d probably get annoyed.

    God is Other, He does what he wants when he wants. If He wants atheists, Muslims. Jews or Wiccans who do good to get into heaven he’ll let them in. Besides, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion God will outwit us all in the end.

    Fidelity to the Magisterium, theological angel on pin counting and parsing dogmatic minutia pale in comparison to the commandment Jesus gave us. “Love one another as I have loved you.”

    So many believers cling to absolutism because if that absolute were to disappear they might disappear. Not fully knowing the mind of God leaves us with many questions. Only the arrogant Sadducee of the modern age claims to know what God is.

    1. patrick says:

      Sorry, man, I’m using this later..

      1. patrick says:

        as a good thing

    2. Paul V says:

      “Fidelity to the Magisterium, theological angel on pin counting and parsing dogmatic minutia pale in comparison to the commandment Jesus gave us. “Love one another as I have loved you.”:

      This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read about Christianity. Thank you.

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