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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131 thoughts on “What Pope Francis really said about atheists

  1. Jon says:

    To an atheist it really doesn’t matter. We don’t believe in heaven anyway. What matters is that Pope Francis is willing to do good work in conjunction with atheists to make THIS WORLD a better place. let us forget the semantics and get to work helping those in need…..together.

  2. jon says:

    I will let God answer in truth.

    Luke 18:16-30. We can not speak better then Jesus.

  3. Edward says:

    The bible has been rewritten so many times that it’s not credible anymore. I will only believe in good morale beings like Pope Francis.

    1. phil kammer says:

      What a crazy comment – to say that God who created the universe cab not edit his own book is either intentionally deceptive or just plane ignorant… Yes Gods word is exactly as He wanted it there are not real modifications that have significantly taken away His message

      1. Keith says:

        He didn’t modify a thing. Read what the man said. The Bible teaches that we are all redeemed. It doesn’t say that we are all saved. Big difference. Get your facts straight. The Pope is interpreting the Bible and Christian tradition as it always has been.

  4. Jon says:

    John 3:16 made this very clear: anyone who believes in me will have eternal life.

    We cannot earn Salvation, it’s freely given, as long we believe and put faith in Christ.

    Ephesians 2:8-9:

    “8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

    9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

    Once saved, always saved. You just repent (not to forsake sin, but a change of mind – that is believe in Jesus Christ).

  5. Katie says:

    You can site whomever’s elaboration you like, but if you read *the Pope’s* words, he clearly says that atheists are redeemed, and that if an atheist does good, they will meet him in Heaven: “‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there. ”

    To interpret it any other way is simply denial.

    People who are kind and do good in the world are close to God, whether they know it or not.

    1. Joe b says:

      You excluded the very important prior sentence:

      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.”

      “There” refers to “doing good”, not heaven.

    2. phil kammer says:

      The Pope is wrong —– he is in rebellion to God

  6. Jon Bicler says:

    How considerate of you to elaborate on the Pope’s views. Having listened to the man speak, I’m of the opinion that he’s quite capable of speaking for himself. Indeed, this is the first Pope in recent memory who’s views I can get behind. Why water him down?

    1. Keith says:

      The Pope did not say that “all good people go to Heaven.” He said that all are redeemed. That’s Christianity 101. Even the most fundamentalist Protestant believes the same, unless they are Calvinist. He said all mankind is redeemed! Huge difference between that and saved. The Bible teaches all mankind is redeemed with Christ’s death on the cross. It doesn’t say that all mankind has been given salvation unless they repent, be baptized and have a conversion experience. Unbelievable ignorance.

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