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. Sandee says:

    Why tell us what the Pope really meant??? It’s not like he or those who work directly with him don’t see what is reported. He would and should be the one to clear up misunderstandings. My heart is telling me there there is more to the Trinity than any human or religious organization can comprehend or preach. Pope Francis is loving and accepting all peoples. God has everyone’s soul in His hands.
    Please let the Pope clarify for himself.

  2. L.A. says:

    Instead of trying to interpret what the Pope might have meant to say or did say – All we really need to do is – go to God’s Word for the answers:

    Salvation is by Grace alone through faith – and good works are prepared in advance for those who are saved to do. It is not a word for the Unbelievers of other religions or athiests — it is a Word for God’s People – CHRISTIANS.

    Ephesians 2:8-10 ~ ” For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. “

  3. John Launder says:

    Well said Emma.

  4. Robert McAnder says:

    Ditto what Emma said, one step at a time. You can’t just unload a bunch of theological minutiae on people who know nothing of it. I think that the Church has too often focused on emphasizing certain elements of the doctrine over others. The Pope is emphasizing those that have been neglected and working to even the scales. He’s a smart man, he’s strategic, and the Rock knows what he’s doing. Let’s support him and follow suit, emphasizing that which has been nearly lost (at least in the realm of public affirmation, though it’s always been there in our musty theological texts in the stacks at the back of our library somewhere).

  5. a says:

    I think what most Catholics or Christians don’t interpret in the bible is what a priest told me…He was asked the question: “How does someone get to heaven if they don’t know Jesus?” He said, “Jesus knows them” If the Bible says that Jesus says no one gets to heaven unless through him, it could be interpreted that jesus will decide. Come on! Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists..none of them get to heaven unless they BELIEVE in Jesus? Some people in rural areas don’t even know him or have the chance to know him….Jesus knows every one of ours souls and knows who is worthy…lots of Christians who believe in Christ are NOT worthy. They will be saved by grace but more than 1/2 of the population won’t? He loves all. Wake up.

  6. Emma says:

    One step at a time – how do you think the world would respond if he’d led with all of that?! Pope Francis is trying to connect with the disenfranchised simply by doing that which Jesus did himself. He’s already drawn in many new followers and gained the respect and attention of those who would never have been interested in Catholicism or the Church. He’s rebuilding a largely damaged relationship with the world, much of which does not understand the essence of Christianity. That’s what he’s preaching – the essence of the religion. This is what people need to know before they move forward and start to learn more, and I think that people are far more likely to want to do that having witnessed the words and actions of a Pope that they love and trust.

    1. a says:

      God knows all, upon judgement he will really know if you have ever had the chance of knowing the truth and simply put it to one side, or if your eyes have never been opened to the truth. Seriously we all have a concious, we feel something right or wrong without having to be told it.

      Most ppl decide to believe what they want from the bible because its easier… believe the good but not the bad? They both go hand in hand.

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