Turns out atheists can’t be redeemed — when Pope Francis said they could, he was misunderstood.
On May 22nd Pope Francis gave a homily that sure as heck seemed to say the Blood of Christ redeems everyone, Catholic or not. I wrote about it for Care2 Causes, noting the homily acknowledged that atheists can be good people. The Vatican is not stepping away from the latter point, but it has issued an Explanatory Note about what the pope should have said about redemption.
Here is what he did say:
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, if we 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: we need 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. [Emphasis added.]
Hard to back away from that, but the Note’s author, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Thomas Rosica, sure tries.
Rosica instructs people to always keep in mind that this pope is first and foremost a pulpit preacher. “His words are not spoken in the context of a theological faculty or academy nor in interreligious dialogue or debate,” and he had “no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation.” The subtext: when Pope Francis speaks, you must take his words with a grain of salt because he isn’t an academic, gets things wrong for the sake of stirring rhetoric, and doesn’t understand the impact of his statements.
So much for papal infallibility. New rule: popes earn infallibility only if they are more scholarly than preacherly. I guess God speaks more clearly in libraries than churches.
Rosica quotes scripture to show that “God wants everyone to be saved.” That may be, but Francis said that everyone is saved already. But I forgot — preacher not a scholar, rhetoric before accuracy, doesn’t know his own impact. So we’ll go with the Scriptures’ implication that while God wants to redeem everyone, he doesn’t.
My favorite of the Note’s arguments is that every act of good (in Pope Francis’s parlance) or of neighborly love (Rosica’s phrase) is evidence that God is working through the actor. An atheist’s good deed proves “God’s activity in the person.” So when the pope said that atheists and other non-Catholics can do good, according to Rosica he meant that non-Catholics who do good are, on some level, potential Catholics.
So the Vatican line is that atheists are capable of doing good, but they “are still going to hell,” as The Christian Post put it. This raises a well-worn objection to all faith-based religions: how could a kind and loving God condemn good people to hell? The usual answer is that good works are necessary but not sufficient — one must also have faith to get past the rope into heaven.
At least Francis and his handlers have acknowledged and not recanted that atheists can be good and moral even without a bunch of old men and old books explaining how to do it. The belief that atheists are amoral is likely the root of Americans’ hatred and fear of them. Pope Francis’s homily pulled that rug out from under the haters, and the Vatican hasn’t put it back.
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