A lot of my non-believer friends were very excited about the news going around that (as the Huffington Post put it) “Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics.” They took it as some sort of radical shift towards Universalism or Pelagianism, as if the Pope had said all good people go to Heaven.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Francis much more than I did his predecessor, but he isn’t about to show up at the local Unitarian Church for the sacrament of coffee and doughnuts. He didn’t just toss out centuries of Catholic doctrine and catechism in an off the cuff remark. He is on the record that he believes “it is not possible to find Jesus outside the Church,” and that “the [true] gate is Jesus and those who do not enter by this gate are mistaken.”
The misunderstanding is the result of a lack of education (both among the general public and in the atheist community) about the history of Christianity and its doctrines. In this case, the confusion stems from technical meaning of “redemption.” Francis did not say that even atheists who are good are saved. He said, “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!”
Note the specific reference to the “Blood of Christ” here. Francis is referring to the death of Jesus as atoning for the sins of humanity. In short, Christians believe that Jesus’ death paid off the human debt of sin. (How exactly this worked remains a matter of debate.) In Catholic teachings, this redemption included every human (Calvin, among others, disagreed), but that only includes the potential for salvation. Salvation is still contingent on accepting the message of Jesus. Jesus bought everybody a ticket, as it were, but each person must choose to take the ride.
Some of my friends protested that the really important thing was that Francis acknowledged that non-Catholics, even atheists, are capable of doing good. Again, I don’t think this is much of a departure, at least for Catholicism. There are some wings of Protestantism that would assert that good works are meaningless or even impossible in the absence of faith in Jesus, but such a view isn’t typical of Catholicism, especially since Vatican II. It was the Catholics, after all, who concocted an (unofficial) explanation to spare “virtuous pagans” the torments of Hell.
I do think what Francis said was important, inasmuch as it indicates that he thinks relieving human suffering is more central to the church’s mission than, say, hating gay people or limiting women’s rights. And it is nice that he specifically included atheists in this context. But this wasn’t a Kumbaya moment.
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