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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120 thoughts on “What Pope Francis really said about atheists

  1. okey says:

    Hi Robert, peace of d Lord be with you. Please try and give a proper meditation into what the pope has said, you will discover that he is trying to shephard the lost sheep as well. Christ came for the sake of us all and frankly the pope meant exactly that. Also know that he is equally human. We welcome you to fellowship with us in Jesus name.

  2. Lindy Ill says:

    Robert: PLEASE don’t reject the Catholic Church! I know it seems like the Pope was saying that you don’t have to believe in God to go to Heaven, but that’s NOT what he said. Also, the English translation of his Spanish words can be misinterpreted. I myself sometimes get confused at the Pope’s public statements (like on homosexuality), but we have to dig deeper, see what exact words he used in his own language, and don’t depend on the liberal mainstream media’s translation! On homosexuality, the Pope said that who is he to judge why a person has homosexual orientation–he NEVER said the homosexual acts are ok! We should only judge actions, not the person, or especially their soul: only God knows the soul. PLEASE come into the Catholic Church, Robert! We need people like you! God Bless you!

  3. JC says:

    Why does it seem this pope always needs clarification from others on what he says? Shouldn’t a leader be clear?

    Jesus said “Repent & Believe” (Mark 1:15)

    This is why our standard for truth has to be God’s Word – The Holy Bible. We are to test what other’s teach.

    Did Jesus say the Pharisees were just a bunch of decent guys, to just do good as a meeting point? Your works cannot save you.

    Dialogue is great, but not if the message is diluted to appease man.

  4. shawn says:

    I find it interesting that others have to clarify what the pope said. First, no everyone is not redeemed. I would encourage those who have spewed out this misinformation to actually look the word up in a dictionary. Only in salvation are we redeemed. Redemption does not exist outside of the framework of salvation, it only exists in it. For who so ever believes….. This pope has made more heretical progressive statements than any pope in history. This is leading to a Christ-less Christianity. Instead of blindly supporting a blatant and willfully misleading statement from the pope, stand your ground in Christ and call a spade a spade. Call him on all his heretical statements, not just this one. “Many will come in my name, but do not be deceived….”

  5. john bonfondeo says:

    Religion people conform out of fear …the Gospel people conform out of …love John 3:16 God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life….we were created in his likeness …its not up to us to judge or say what happens that’s up to God ….but we open are arms and are hearts to all men …how can they resist ….perfect love.. and perfect love cast out all fear…..with love only Good exists.. and love of God for us is a beacon to salvation ….Instead of questions of what the pope said ….Be Good to each other spread ..Good ..its the road to salvation for all mankind

  6. Robert says:

    I can’t believe I was considering a possible conversion to Catholicism, but now I’m not even going to think about it anymore. This man has confused me too much, and I can’t place myself under his authority when he says things like this. It’s astonishing that the one man who, above any other man on earth, should be drawing people into the church is actually the man who has driven me away from it.

    May God have mercy on my soul.

    1. Elizabeth John says:

      Robert, I am a brand new Catholic and it is true that i find some of what the pope says challenging… But it has, in many cases, driven me to dig deeper into the teachings of the church. When I do, I discover that the pope is not changing anything, but is pointing to core truths that sometimes get lost. I always come away with a deeper understanding of the faith, which is exactly what a pope is supposed to go for his flock. I am praying that you will not be so discouraged that you walk away. Seek God. Let the Holy Spirit lead you. I believe he will show you the way.

    2. Shadow says:

      Good. Don’t be drawn in by a man. The Church was never intended for that. If any man draws you it should be Jesus Christ, not Pope Francis. “men” will ALWAYS let you down, and disappoint. Only a living Christ can reveal how real He really is.

    3. Sharleen Parker says:

      Robert… please read the above article again. Christ came to redeem us all, but we must turn to Him to be redeemed. You don’t have to be Catholic, you have to believe in Christ and love HIM. I don’t want to sound anti Catholic but even the Pope is a human, and fallible. But he is correct that Christ died to save us ALL. It is up to us as to what we will do with His love and that salvation. Please read the book of John and ask God to show you what He would want you to see. God bless you! Don’t give up!

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