What Pope Francis really said about atheists

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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.

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

Stephen Kokx is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of political science living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has previously worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office for Peace and Justice. His writing on religion, politics and Catholic social teaching has appeared in a number of outlets, including Crisis Magazine, The American Thinker and his hometown paper The Grand Rapids Press. He is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, and is a graduate of Aquinas College and Loyola University Chicago. Follow Stephen on twitter @StephenKokx

13 Comments

  1. John Provenzale on

    I don’t believe that this pope or the Catholic Church understand what salvation is and how it is obtained. Martin Luther realized it centuries ago and split from the church but today’s Catholics are still centuries behind!

    • Martin Luther was a heretic monk who hated Jews. If Christ established ONE CHURCH then explain to me why there are over 40,000 Protestant denominations ALL arguing among themselves over Holy Scripture interpretation? Christ established just ONE CHURCH…the Holy Catholic Church who brought the Holy Bible to the World! Protestants are lost souls still trying to find the truth. Christ said that to have Eternal Life we must “eat His flesh and drink His blood.” Catholics receive Christ in the Holy Eucharist at holy Mass. Protestants (you) reject the Holy Eucharist. I think it is you who are clueless concerning salvation. By the way, Protestants have NO authority to interpret Holy Scripture.

      • Scott Strople on

        Is this the love of Christ you display? Luther “hated” Jews? What is your source? While this Pope haa said quite a number of things that are challenged by scripture, his forays into political positions as an ardent socialist set him apart from much of the right wing believers.

  2. May the God of your understanding bless your soul. When we seperate and judge others, are we not just hypocrites?? LOVE, GRACE AND SERVICE keeps me grateful and tolerant of others. Actions speak louder than words, follow the teachings of Christ with action not with some clever words and a bit of worship, that was what i was told to try, and my life has become more amazing that i could have ever imagined !!! Peace.

  3. As a Catholic who tries to live out the Faith, I’m utterly fed up with the Pope Francis Two-Step. Over and over, Francis blurts out a half-truth that confuses or deceives millions, and never clarifies himself. Catholic writers then step forward to chide those who are justly horrified, and try to tell us that what Francis “really meant” was fully in line with Catholic doctrine. But how do they know? Do they begin by assuming that Francis’ ideas are totally orthodox, and that there must be an explanation that excuses his contrary or incomplete statement? If so, they assume what they set out to prove, and that’s nonsense.

    Usually, we take a person’s off-the-cuff remarks to give us more reliable evidence of their real thoughts than a prepared statement in which they’ve been able to choose their words carefully. For example, with politicians we heavily discount their TelePrompTer-guided speeches, and look to their unguarded words caught on “hot mikes” to tell us what’s really in their hearts. It should be the same with Francis. on that basis, I conclude that He really thinks that it’s possible for everyone to earn salvation with good works even while denying God and rejecting the need to accept redemption. That’s an old, old heresy.

    • I dont understand how you can be so sure of yourself and so negative about it to call it a heresy.
      You simply take other popes from less enlightened times as more unable to err than Francis, without any reason but your habit.
      In fact, in the most clear and detailed place where he talks about judgment and salvation, what Jesus said is that many will tell him: but I did not know you, when did I serve you? and he would say to them: when you did contribute to spread what is good

  4. Hi, i’m going to start this comment by saying, yes, i’m an atheist, however i do respect you and your religion. I would like to say that at the end The Pope says “‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.’ which to me says that all that do good will go to heaven, including atheists, as it says we will meet one another there, where he is stating there to mean heaven.

  5. As an atheist, I find this all hilarious. Please can we all just be good to each other now, in this life, than worry what will happen when we die. Death, I suppose, is the ultimate salvation for everyone. All sin is wiped clean.

  6. You should be very proud of this Pope. But instead you criticize him, I am an agnostic and although I don’t believe one word of the Bible, I was raised Christian and have read the Bible (main reason I don’t believe) and Pope Francis reflects the very best parts of that book. This man is the very image of what your book tells you is Christ like, so why again don’t you like him? Is he too loving? Is he too kind? Is he too inclusive?

  7. It would be a good idea if the press–the media–had a course in the Catholic religion or in theology, because they seem to often get things wrong.

    However, Pope Francis himself makes remarks that are misleading and confusing. He gives the impression that everyone goes to heaven, even atheists, because they are “redeemed.” In the quotes in this article, Francis says nothing about sin–about the necessity of avoiding sin and sincerely repenting for sins that one has committed. Jesus suffered and died to redeem the entire human race–but that does not mean that everyone finds salvation. A Catholic–even a priest–who lives a bad life and does not repent will not make it to heaven. An atheist can be a good person and do good; however, it is not likely that an atheist is going to live his or her entire life without committing any serious sins, and it is not likely that he or she is going to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness before death–so the atheist is putting his or her soul in grave danger of damnation. Of course, since they don’t believe in God, they believe that there is no judgment and that they have no need of repentance. Pope Francis is wrong in giving atheists the impression that there is no need for them to believe in God. Our beliefs affect our thoughts, and our thoughts determine our actions. On the other hand, our lifestyle affects what we are likely to believe. Our lifestyle and our beliefs are both connected.
    Doing good is also important, but doing good, by itself, is not enough; we also must avoid sin.

  8. The Pope said, ‘We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all!’ HuffPo got it right, and you appear to be the one misinterpretting his words. The last time I checked, ‘us all’ means all of humanity, Christians, Jews, atheists, all of us.

    You clearly fail to even heed the wise words of your own spiritual guide in Rome. It’s a wonder you get away with claiming kinship with other Christians who interpret the Pope’s words more reasonably.

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