Atheists in Heaven? Part 2

Vatican spokesman Rev. Thomas Rosica with Pope Francis
Image from The Toronto Observer

“You heard Pope Francis wrong!” 


That, in a nutshell, is what Vatican spokesman Rev. Thomas Rosica claimed when he “issued an ‘explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation’” in view of the recent controversial papal statement. (Source: CNN Belief Blog) Apparently, the Pope declared in his homily that good atheists could go to heaven. But Rosica clarified “that people who [are] aware of the Catholic church ‘cannot be saved’ if they ‘refuse to enter her or remain in her.’” (Ibid)


Simply put, they have to convert from atheism to Catholicism in order to be saved.


Conservative Rev. John Zuhlsdorf piped in. “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.” (Ibid)


So, atheists cannot go to heaven without Christ. 


Mark P. Shea. Catholic author,
blogger, and speaker.
Image from La Salette Journey
In his “Friends Don’t Let HuffPo Writers Do Theology” article, Catholic blogger Mark Shea pointed out that it was the fault of the media (particularly The Huffington Post) for hearing what they wanted to hear. “Pope Francis does not say that ‘all who do good are redeemed’. The reason he does not say this is because people–like HuffPo–are all too ready to assume that our redemption depends on us doing good.” (Source: Patheos)

In fairness, according to a Catholic lay leader I spoke to, Pope Francis is more of a missionary than a theologian, being a Franciscan. He is more into theology in action than in expression. So, even if he is the supposed Vicar of Christ, it seems we cannot really expect razor sharp precision as far as theological terms are concerned.


Thus, when there’s conflict in interpreting the statement, the best thing to do is to go back to the statement itself. This time, instead of quoting from The Huffington Post, allow me to quote the Pope’s statement from The Vatican Today.

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.
As a whole, Pope Francis was talking about that common good in us. The proverbial fly in the ointment here would be the word “redeemed.”

Shea explained it this way: “In short, the reason we are redeemed–all of us without any exception whatsoever, even Hitler and Judas Iscariot–is that Jesus Christ died for every human being without any exception whatsoever.” According to Shea, what the Pope meant by the word “redeemed” was that “the offer of salvation is extended to all–including atheists, not because of our goodness, but because of God’s grace. ” In short, he was just affirming that the benefits of the sacrifice of Christ are offered to everybody. Everybody includes everybody and excludes nobody. So, the same offer is extended to atheists. “However,” as Shea admits, “that does not mean it is a slam dunk that the offer will be accepted by all.” That means that an atheist must accept the offer to enjoy its blessings.


So far so good. They even sounded like evangelicals. Remember that I wrote in Part 1 that, Yes, the blessings of Christ’s death and resurrection are available to all. But only those who would avail of it through faith can enjoy it.” 
Image from The Atlantic
But it seems David M. Perry, associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois, contradicted Shea and Rev. Rosica. What he wrote in his “No, the Pope Didn't Just Say All Atheists Go to Heaven” is very revealing.

At first, Perry appeared to be toeing the official Vatican line. 

Some have reacted to this as a doctrine articulating the salvation of atheists. Having read all reported versions of Francis' homily, in both English and Italian, I do not find an explicit statement that an atheist who does that which is good, il bene in Italian, will be saved. (Source: The Atlantic. Italics his)
Yet I find the next lines he wrote disturbing.
However, Francis does emphasize the universality of Christ's redemptive power, and it is through that redemptive power that salvation becomes possible. He is clearly open to the idea that Christ may well redeem even those who are non-believers. More fully articulated, that would open up a new wager, in which whether or not one believed, one's actions in the world would determine one’s access to paradise. Even the hint of such an idea from man whose spiritual power stems from being the heir to St. Peter, holder of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, is striking. Still, that God might save those who neither believe nor participate in the sacraments is not a new idea. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one finds the statement, ‘God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.’ If God wants to save someone, they will be saved. (Ibid)
It is one thing to say that our Lord Jesus died for all sins to make heaven possible for us. Its another to say “that Christ may well redeem even those who are non-believers.” It is clear that as Perry sees it, “whether or not one believed, ones actions in the world would determine ones access to paradise.” He even affirmed that the Cathechism itself espouses that. 

For Perry, one’s works would be the basis for salvation and not faith. So, we go back to what the controversy about Pope Francis statement is all about.  Perry actually articulated what people thought they heard the Pope say: that good atheists would go to heaven. That an atheist does not need to convert to Christianity at all. That an atheist just have to be good in order to be saved. He does not have to believe God at all. 

So, even among Catholic apologists, there seems to be a disagreement as to what the Pope really meant by what he said.


So, did we really hear Pope Francis wrong? 


(Read: Atheists in Heaven? Part 1)

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