Pope Francis's comments received worldwide attention, with many hopefully interpreting his words to mean that atheists could go to heaven if they do not become Catholics but "do good."
reports that many American atheists welcomed the pope's comments, saying it signaled a new spirit of rapprochement between the Church and secular society. According to CNN
, David Silverman, president of American Atheists
, welcomed the pope's statement, saying: "While the concept of Jesus dying for atheists is wrong on many levels (especially given that Jesus himself promised hell for blasphemers), I can appreciate the pope's 'good faith' effort to include atheists in the moral discussion. Atheists on the whole want no part in Catholicism, of course, but we are all interested in basic human rights.”
reported that in a homily he delivered on Wednesday, the pope said:
"They (the Apostles) complain [saying]... If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” [But Jesus corrected them, saying] “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good." [According to Francis, the Apostles were] "a little intolerant" [and thought that only those of their group could be good, believing that] "those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” [The pope said:] “This was wrong... Jesus broadens the horizon... The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation."
[Pope Francis continued:] "The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... 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!... 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.”
In a quick move to disabuse the minds of the ungodly majority who may have heaved a sigh of relief after learning that the pope has said the closed doors of heaven have at last been flung open to non-Catholics and atheists (!), Rosica implied that the pope did not mean to say that atheists could go to heaven if they do good but do not become Catholics. According to CNN
, in an "explanatory note on the meaning of salvation" issued on Thursday, Rosica made it clear that people cannot be saved if they are aware of the Catholic Church but "refuse to enter her or remain in her." That is, atheists are going to hell if they do not become Catholics.
Has Rosica corrected the infallible pontiff? Many would say yes, but Rosica appears to meander around this point by suggesting he was only clarifying the pope's words. He attempts to establish a distinction between the availability of salvation for all and people availing themselves of the opportunity.
Rosica said in the statement: "Every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”
Rosica stressed that Pope Francis had “no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation."
According to CNN
, experts in the Catholic theology have embraced Rosica's exposition, saying that Francis had only expressed a tenet of the Catholic faith. Reverend John Zuhlsdorf, a conservative Catholic priest, wrote
: "Francis was clear that whatever graces are offered to atheists (such that they may be saved) are from Christ. He was clear that salvation is only through Christ’s Sacrifice. In other words, he is not suggesting – and I think some are taking it this way – that you can be saved, get to heaven, without Christ."
Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, said: "The remarks about atheists show that there is even a saint for atheists, Including all of humanity... To stress that the gospel redeems all people, including atheists, is the teaching of the church. This is an objective fact that the church believes.”
What these words from Catholic experts mean is that in spite of what the pope's words may have suggested, moral good is not good enough for those who are keen about making it to heaven. You also need, as Rosica puts it a little awkwardly, to "enter her and remain in her."
Rosica's clarification also alerts us to the need to consult a dictionary of Catholic theology when next the pope makes a concession that appears too good to be true, because some Catholic theologians are saying there is a distinction between "redemption" and "salvation." Remember that Francis hadn't said atheists are "saved" but that they are "redeemed."
As the Irish Central
points out, in Catholic theology, it appears that even Judas Iscariot was "redeemed" by the death of Christ on the cross but he was not "saved." Every good Catholic believes Iscariot is burning in hell right now.
retorts in apparent frustration at the seeming theological double-talk that raised our hopes about heaven and dashed it while we were still rejoicing: "Okay, okay, so that’s what we were expecting all along. Atheists, according to Christians, are going to hell unless we accept Christ’s divinity. We already knew that. It was still an unusual and welcome gesture from the Pope to recognize that everyone, regardless of beliefs, can do good and 'be saved' — at least it was a step up from what we’re used to hearing."
While the Catholic Church may have restated uncompromisingly its position on the ultimate fate of atheists, not many think that atheists are worrying about it.