The pope has spoken – and people act like it’s never been said before.
Pope Francis’ May 22 homily, in which he touched on the redemption of atheists, is still generating buzz. This is due at least as much to a number of virally spreading misquotations as it is to what the Holy Father actually said. Now, lest I suffer the fate of other well-meaning explicators (explained below), let me make one thing clear from the outset: nothing I say here is in any way intended to repudiate or explain away the redemption, or even the salvation, of those outside the visible Church. In fact, I agree not only with what Pope Francis said but also with much of what has been extrapolated from it. What I do wish to correct is the misconstrued narrative that has been growing around the pope’s message, In Which Pope Francis Says Something Revolutionary Which Is Promptly Walked Back by Vatican Reactionaries. I’ll unpack the flaws in this narrative in a bit, but first, to clarify the breadth of Catholic orthodoxy on the questions it has raised, a little crash course in soteriology is in order.
A lot could be said about the various views of salvation held among Christians (a more thorough taxonomy is spelled out here [p. 6-7]), but for my present purposes I simply want to give a brief explanation of two extremes and a broad middle. On one end, exclusivism says that only those who explicitly confess Christ (and, in the case of an ecclesiocentric model, who explicitly belong to the Church) can be saved. On the other, relativism (along with some closely-related forms of universalism) says that the Christ-event is, at best, merely one of many ways to salvation. Contrary to both of these, inclusivism says that all grace is through Christ, though not only through explicit profession of Christianity; in other words, that people outside of the Christian faith may in fact be saved by Christ – a view that, in Catholic theology, has been most famously articulated in Karl Rahner’s idea of the “anonymous Christian.”
The former two positions, at least in their most extreme forms, have been repudiated by the Catholic magisterium (with the likes of Leonard Feeney and Jacques Dupuis representing boundary markers on either end). The latter is my own view, and at least by implication it seems that it is likely Pope Francis’ view as well. But that’s not really what he was talking about in his now-famous homily, or at least not in the way it’s been popularly reported. The Huffington Post, for instance, proclaimed, “Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics,” which is technically true but reflects a few significant misunderstandings, namely 1) that the redemption and/or salvation of non-Christians is an unprecedented idea in the Catholic Church, 2) that redemption is necessarily interchangeable with eschatological salvation, and 3) that either one depends on “doing good.”
Here is what he said about atheists and doing good in context, courtesy of Vatican Radio:
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. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. Instead, this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.
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.
Commenting on that day’s Gospel reading in which Jesus rebukes his disciples for stopping someone from driving out demons because he was not one of them, Pope Francis was critiquing the idea that non-Christians are incapable of doing good. He was not saying that atheists can be redeemed if they do good, but rather that atheists can do good because they are redeemed.
On one level, this is an even broader affirmation than the news reports imagine. And if they find it shocking to hear the pope say that redemption is for all, they would be even more shocked to realize that this was already a teaching of the Catholic Church (as Mark Shea has pointed out). So yes, atheists who do good are redeemed – and so are atheists who do evil. This does not automatically mean that all will accept that redemption, but neither does this in turn mean that all professed non-believers will ultimately reject it.
Of course, we can’t necessarily expect the secular press to grasp the rather subtle distinctions in theological concepts such as salvation and redemption, but there is a bigger problem with how the pope’s homily was reported, perhaps fed by popular preferences for sensationalism over substance and soundbites over fuller context. One recent editorial, heavy on snark and light on factual accuracy, misidentifies Fr. Thomas Rosica, CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Media, as a Vatican spokesman and then misquotes him as saying, contra Pope Francis, that “atheists are still going to hell.” Having once met Fr. Rosica and having seen several of his interviews, I was immediately suspicious: for one thing, I knew he wasn’t a Vatican spokesman, and for another, he did not strike me as the type to make that sort of hard-line statement. I looked up what he actually said on Salt and Light’s website and found not a “correction” of the pope’s homily but a response to questions he had received about it, vastly more nuanced than the impression given by the aforementioned article. The only direct quote attributed to Fr. Rosica (“People who know about the Catholic church ‘cannot be saved’ if they ‘refuse to enter her or remain in her,’ he said.”) was actually taken from his lengthy citation of the Compendium of the Catechism, which, in context, clearly does not indicate a “tall order of eternal hellfire for the rest of us.” The full paragraph reads as follows:
171. What is the meaning of the affirmation “Outside the Church there is no salvation”?
This means that all salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body. Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her. At the same time, thanks to Christ and to his Church, those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church but sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience can attain eternal salvation.
Fr. Rosica essentially goes on to affirm the doctrinal soundness of inclusivism as opposed to either exclusivism or relativism, elaborating on Pope Francis’ homily and setting it within the context of Catholic tradition. In a final echo of the pope’s message, he says, “As Christians, we believe that God is always reaching out to humanity in love. This means that every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit.”
That doesn’t sound like much of a walk-back. And yet the Huffington Post ran with the mischaracterization of Fr. Rosica’s note as a Vatican statement trying “to do damage control for Francis’ remarks.” To their credit, they did correct the misattributed catechism quote and provide a bit more of a context for what Fr. Rosica did say, but they still erroneously state that he was speaking on behalf of the Vatican and cherry-pick a comment on the homiletic context of Francis’ remarks in a way that makes it sound like an attempt to downplay his authority in general. Abigail Frymann at the Tablet caught the original mistake, although even she seems to suggest at one point that Fr. Rosica was somehow siding against Pope Francis. But Frymann, at least, is informed enough to see through the patently false headline, “Vatican corrects infallible pope: atheists will still burn in hell.” A contextualized reading shows that the statement in question was not made by the Vatican, was not meant as a correction, had nothing to do with papal infallibility, and did not claim that atheists are automatically damned. So, in effect, the only true word in that headline is “pope.”
The invocation of infallibility in this situation only demonstrates the need for a more understandable articulation of papal authority. The idea that the pope could singlehandedly and spontaneously cause a dramatic upheaval in church doctrine with a statement he makes in a homily or any off-the-cuff remark, and that other ecclesial authorities would therefore be hypocritical to disagree with anything the pope says, represents a sense of “creeping infallibility” as blatantly as any ultramontanist could.
Unfortunately, the misperceptions are out there and readily available to anyone seeking reasons to believe in the faulty narrative they present. The least we can do is not to perpetuate them further. The best we can do is to demonstrate a counter-narrative of our Church’s truest self-expression by living into our Holy Father’s example of “the ‘culture of encounter’ that is the foundation of peace,” whatever that might look like for each of us in practice.