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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110 thoughts on “What Pope Francis really said about atheists

  1. Jen says:

    I feel the Pope should have some concern about the faithfuls feelings when he makes these off the cuff statements. It confuses us and hurts us because he doesn’t bother backing them up by what the church teachings are

  2. Samwise says:

    I see now that Francis was simply focusing the homily on Christ’s work of redemption–and it’s effectiveness–vs. an atheist’s good works. He said that Christ died for all (true), and that good works are simply an opportunity to witness to Christ’s work i.e. an atheist is more open to the gospel after serving the poor.

  3. Teep says:

    Uh. Please, members of the combox. give Stephen a break. Anyone who has ever been to stations of the cross knows what the Pope said. It isn’t just Mr. Kokx’s interpretation. He’s not correcting the Pope, who can say what he wants to say how he wants to say it. If the Pope is the representative of Christ, then, like Christ’s disciples we better have ears to hear. ( I note that they didn’t get it right very often during Jesus’ ministry, either.) It is by Christ’s cross that the world is redeemed, including atheists, who can and do perform good works. It’s not like pagan Greeks didn’t first conceptualize virtue or something. All the Pope said was, if someone’s work is in the right place, they can be disposed toward Christ’s redemption. Natural virtue kind of does that, because, as Aquinas tells us, the natural virtues can lead us toward the theological. If everyone could just take Emily’s advice about being an annoying Catholic and read 8 pages of the Summa every day, this conversation might go a bit easier. What Pope Francis meant is not a mere matter of opinion, there are some boundaries across which his words do not traverse. One of them is that an atheist gets to heaven by purposely denying God, even if he or she does good works. Anyone who is not a narcissist, incapable of anything but isogetical reading/thinking/hearing, can eventually figure this out.

  4. Larry says:

    What the Pope said is what the Pope said but thank you for sharing your interpretation of what the Pope said. Very interesting.

    1. Slats says:

      So you’re saying the Pope was saying what the secular media was saying he was saying. Incorrect. He said that Catholics and atheists would “meet” in doing good, not in heaven. He did not say atheists were saved. He did not say they were going to heaven. He simply did not say those things. He said that they could pursue virtue and do good.

      On the other hand, I would say from my own personal opinion as a Catholic that this homily was not at all pastorally helpful in this day and age. The crushing majority of atheists I’ve encountered favor abortion and the destruction of society by acceptance and legalization of same-sex marriage, and many of their efforts in those areas have a definite activist and would-be do-gooder quality. Those make the world a many-times worse place, not better. Catholics, atheists, et al. may be able to work together for some goods, but in areas that are among the very most important today, it’s still a matter of the objective good of the Catholic perspective versus the objective evil of the atheist perspective.

      And yes, pastoral prudence – and, Greg, homiletics – are absolutely areas in which a good Catholic may disagree with the pope.

      1. GREG SMITH says:

        Slatts ~ True, but because one may do something doesn’t mean one should.~ Pax, Greg

        1. Larry says:

          Greg, I believe Slats was saying that it’s ok to disagree with the Pope regarding homiletics. You seem to be saying that it’s not ok. If I’m accurate, you’re saying that open communication with positive intent is not ok. I couldn’t agree less. Why, in your opinion, is it not ok? After-all, the Pope is human and capable of error.

      2. Larry says:

        I’m saying the Pope said what the Pope said and I uphold you right to interpret what the Pope said anyway you want to whether I agree with your interpretation or not.

        1. Slats says:

          Your comment strongly implied that you believed he said something he didn’t say. You talk about the value of respecting varying interpretations, but you refuse to concede the fact that the mainstream media misinterpreted what he said, and are enshrining that interpretation as “what he said,” when it was factually not what he said, nor was it a correct interpretation of what he said. You are doing so because you do not understand the theological distinctions that Catholics make. Ignorance is fine (although informing oneself is better), but then don’t weigh in on things about which you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  5. Ronald Sevenster says:

    If the Pope himself agrees with your interpretation of his words, he has deliberately caused confusion. For he knows quite well how his words would be received by the secular press, which is unable to know the finer points of Catholic doctrine as for instance the distinction between objective and subjective redemption. The Apostles never said anything like this. They simply told all people to repent and to put their faith in G-d and in the Messiah sent by Him, the Lord Jesus. And they clearly told everyone that all those who — for whatever reasons — refuse to do so will die in their sins and face eternal condemnation. The Pope has confused the Gospel message and by his words has made Atheists feel good. The Apostles would be horrified of this. It is not the task of the Pope to speculate on the possibility of salvation without conscious knowledge of the Gospel message. He has simply to preach the Gospel and to warn the public that without faith in Christ and sincere repentance they’ll be eternally lost.

    1. Anna says:

      Thank you, Ronald. Well stated.

  6. GREG SMITH says:

    Hi Stephen ~ Do you realize that in the last paragraph you are giving the POPE homeltics pointers? ~ Pax, Greg

    1. Larry says:

      I find it refreshing that Stephen gave the Pope “feedback.” It shows a willingness to act “outside the box.” Perhaps such actions are somehow considered “non-Catholic” but my guess is that this Pope would praise Stephen for sharing his thoughts. How can the human race move forward if no one ever questions and if no one ever offers their thoughts to others?

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