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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121 thoughts on “What Pope Francis really said about atheists

  1. Michael says:

    Pope Francis’ key point is that “God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart”.
    As a Christian, I believed that faith is not a matter of intellectual declaration but a matter of trust. Faith stems from the heart rather than the brain … A person who chooses “good” over “evil” and acts with true Love, is likely to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit whether he knows it or not. The Holy Spirit acts in any way he chooses and wherever he chooses. He is God. He is certainly not limited by human notions. I’m looking forward to some very interesting and enjoyable discussions with the atheists in heaven.

  2. Renee M says:

    I think the real point here, and I apologize if it’s already been said, is that atheists are not likely to care what was said or how it was misinterpreted.

    The Pope seems like a fair enough fellow, but I don’t care about people’s opinions on things I think are fantasies anyway. So…I’ll continue being good for goodness’ sake and not be bothered by metaphysical unknowns and unlikelies.

  3. OneLove says:

    By grace, through faith NOT works. That’s not biblical to say by good deeds we are granted salvation. The Holy Spirit, which we get by Grace changes us and shows us how to love others, while humbling self and good works follow.
    Ephesians 2:8-9
    English Standard Version (ESV)
    8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast

  4. Brian Schmidt says:

    The reason peter is said to be the first vicar of Christ is that he had an unbroken line if disciples up to the nicean council. The person at that council was Eusebius. If this was correct then the leader the council would be him. It was emperor Constantine. From the bible most of the new testament was written by Paul or Luke Paul’s disciple. Peter did not write any gospel. The rock and the keys refer to Peter’s testimony the Jesus is the Christ

  5. Sven Johansson says:

    Yes -most people seam to have misinterpreted the pope gravely. Most commentators seam to have interpreted it like that some that are saved do not need Christ but that their good works are enough, which would not be a christian view as I see it. But another question is if there exist some people in the world that may die in other religions or as atheist and are saved BY CHRIST because they, without knowing it themselfes, might stand within reach for salvation by Christ, not by their works.Some have also interpreted the pope that way. I am protestant myself and I do not promise salvation without seeing Christ as our saviour but I am open to the thaught that some might be saved by Christ, without knowing it themselfes. But many protestants do not think such salvation is possible.

  6. Daniel says:

    Before Jesus Ascended into heaven, he did not leave us a bible.No he left us Peter to whom the keys to heaven were given, and the apostles. Those were the first Bishops. Peter the first Vicar.
    God gave us his church and its 4 marks, and its is through this church and only this church anyman shall ever be saved

    1. Jenny says:

      wow Daniel I’m sorry but that just is not true.

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