There was a story in the news a few days ago suggesting that Pope Francis is o.k. with atheists, so long as they’re good people. Some interpreted the Pope’s statement as meaning that atheists can even go to heaven if they’re sufficiently upstanding, which sounds like the idea that “good works” are good enough. An article from the Religion News Service said that the Pope’s remarks “may prompt a theological debate about the nature of salvation”.
Here’s what the Pope actually 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! 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.”
Unfortunately for any of us atheists or agnostics making plans for the afterlife, the “there” where we can meet the Pope probably won’t be heaven.
A Vatican spokesman, and other commentators, have explained that, in the view of the Catholic Church, all humanity was redeemed by Jesus’s sacrifice, even the atheists. This means that it is possible for everyone to be saved. Nobody is automatically ruled out (for example, by being born Hindu or by having been an atheist). This is traditional church doctrine.
However, in order to get to heaven, you have to meet one of two requirements:
(1) Be a good Catholic; or
(2) Be a good person who never had the opportunity to be a good Catholic, like a Kalahari Bushman who never heard about the gospel.
Anybody who had the opportunity to be a good Catholic but decided not to bother is out of luck:
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. (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church)
So even a full-fledged non-believer, somebody who has consciously rejected belief in God and the Catholic Church, has been redeemed, but he or she has to become a good Catholic in order to be saved. Meanwhile, the Pope, to his credit, believes that we can all work together, even us non-believers, to make the world a better place.
I’m glad that’s cleared up.
One of the original news stories:
What the Pope said:
The official explanation: