Can Atheists Be Redeemed?

Pope Francis said some interesting things at mass yesterday. From the Vatican Radio website:

Wednesday’s Gospel speaks to us about the disciples who prevented a person from outside their group from doing good. “They complain,” the Pope said in his homily, because they say, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.” The disciples, Pope Francis explains, “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of ​​possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation”:

“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.”

I’m honestly not sure what to think of that. It’s hard to imagine Benedict or John Paul II even acknowledging the basic humanity of atheists, so I guess that’s something. But the condescension is pretty nauseating, as is the conceit that the Catholic Church has unique access to The Truth.

But the really interesting part is yet to come:

“Instead,” the Pope continued, “the Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in the depths of our heart: do good and do not do evil”:

“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.”

Wait a second. What does that mean? Atheists are redeemed? I thought redemption was the exclusive province of those with the proper attitude towards Jesus. The Blood of Christ made redemption possible for everyone, but we have to do our part as well. Right?

The Pope cannot possibly be saying that atheists can go to heaven right along with all those right-thinking Catholics. Or that our fate in the afterlife is solely about our acts and not our faith. But then, what is he saying? I’m all in favor of everyone doing good (with the significant proviso that “doing good” is not at all the same thing as, “living in accord with official Catholic moral teachings.&rdquo)

By a “culture of encounter,” I assume he means that all of us, regardless of our religious beliefs, can come together harmoniously in this life. Assuming I’m basically right about that, I would note that it is not atheists who have been standing in the way. Rather, it is the practitioners of exclusivist religions, like Roman Catholicism, that do that. They, apparently, are the ones who need their leaders to explain to them that people can do good even while not being part of their religion. In this they differ from atheists, who were never confused on this point.

Comments

  1. #1 Ignacio Gallo
    pofume.org
    May 23, 2013

    He is simply saying that atheists don’t really exist: they are catholics, they just don’t know it yet.

    The only thing I concede to Bergoglio is making me realise that Ratzinger was much better than I ever realised: with him, at least you knew exactly what you got.

    Bergoglio is saluted as some kind of illuminated cleric, but the truth is that on the very first day of his pontificate he thought best to clearly state that the gay’s right movement “isn’t just a political struggle, it’s a strategy to destroy God’s plan”.
    A “strategy to destroy God’s plan”. An international conspiracy, I guess. But Bergoglio apparently pays for his own restaurant bills, so it doesn’t matter that he says things like this.

    And if anyone’s interested, here is documental evidence of the Argentinian Ministry of Exterior during the bloody Videla dictatorship, showing clearly that Bergoglio collaborated to send two dissenting priests to the torturing chambers.

    http://www.slideshare.net/ilfattoquotidiano/bergoglio

    One of these priests, Orlando Yorio, apparently died in 2000 without ever retracting his strong accusations regarding Bergoglio’s role in his imprisonment and torture.

    Before now, I had never been actually frightened by the degree of cynicism with what the catholic church was operating.

  2. #2 MNb
    May 23, 2013

    “In this they differ from atheists, who were never confused on this point.”
    Too much hubris. There have been some communists who didn’t believe and still were convinced that non-communists couldn’t do any good.

  3. #3 Andrew West
    May 23, 2013

    “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.””

    Does that mean the Catholic church is going to start doing good? Big news!

  4. #4 couchloc
    May 23, 2013

    “… it is the practitioners of exclusivist religions, like Roman Catholicism, that do that.”

    Um….I don’t think Roman Catholocism is exlusivist anymore, at least not in the traditional hard-line way. I believe Vatican II changed that. This may help explain some of the church’s views expressed above.

  5. #5 andre
    May 23, 2013

    As someone raised Roman Catholic (albeit in a *relatively* liberal American diocese in general and parish in particular) we were always taught that one’s actions, not one’s beliefs, were sufficient to reach heaven (so that really good non-Christians wouldn’t go to hell). We were taught that exclusivism was the province of evangelicals and baptists.

    I think the extent of this idea is still disputed, but I’m not surprised to hear a pope express these ideas. Couchloc might be right above that this might have been formally addressed in Vatican II or some other change, but I’m not sure.

    In my area, the extra (again, relatively) liberal view might have had something to do with the parish’s connections to many synagogues in the community (there was a relatively large Jewish population) as well as a few other faith groups (Sikhs in particular).

  6. #6 Reginald Selkirk
    May 23, 2013

    It is clearer when you realise that there are two separate questions:

    1) Can nonbelievers be good? This appears to be the question Jesus H. Christ is addressing in that selected quote.

    2) Will nonbelievers receive salvation? (Generally interpreted as eternal life in Heaven). There are ample NT verses which make it clear that salvation is based on belief (and some that say the opposite, so be careful with your cherry-picking). This raises the possibility that nonbelievers could be good, but not be rewarded with salvation. Thanks a lot.

    … 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.”

    Conceived of? Some of them actually carried through. His Royal Popeness appears to be condemning large sections of the OT as blasphemy, as well as many actions undertaken by his perdecessor popes. Outrageous.

    “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!

    It doesn’t matter, because we will all be baptised Mormon after our deaths. ‘Father, the Catholics?‘ Even the Catholics. Many Catholics, including quite a few popes, have already received that blessing.

  7. #7 sean samis
    May 23, 2013

    I guess I’m going to take this differently from other commentators. Instead of looking at what I don’t like, I see much to appreciate in this. P. Frank is saying that just because someone is not a member of the “in group” that does not make them bad, and that the “in group” needs to appreciate what others do and are capable of.

    What’s wrong with that? He maintains his beliefs and yet appreciates the good work others do.

    Sounds like something to cheer, not jeer.

    sean s.

  8. #8 MNb
    May 23, 2013

    “This raises the possibility that nonbelievers could be good, but not be rewarded with salvation. Thanks a lot.”
    Thank you a lot for not giving me the Chinese translation of Melville’s Moby Dick.
    Makes about as much sense.
    Largely I am with Sean S – believers recognizing that I can be a good guy is all I really ask from them.

  9. #9 deepak shetty
    May 23, 2013

    The Pope cannot possibly be saying that atheists can go to heaven right along with all those right-thinking Catholics.
    most Catholics I know don’t think being Catholic or Christian is a per-requisite for heaven. Though it would be a big thing if the Pope acknowledges that.

  10. #10 Mal Adapted
    May 23, 2013

    “This raises the possibility that nonbelievers could be good, but not be rewarded with salvation. Thanks a lot.”

    Yes, seriously, thanks a lot. I’m with Taino cacique Hatuey, who, as he was about to be burned at the stake for rebelling against the enslavement of his people by the Spanish invaders of Cuba, was asked by a priest if he would accept Jesus and go to heaven. History records the cacique’s response:

    [Hatuey], thinking a little, asked the religious man if Christians Spaniards went to heaven. The religious man answered yes… The chief then said without further thought that he did not want to go there but to hell so as not to be where they were and where he would not see such cruel people.

  11. #11 Ignacio Gallo
    pofume.org
    May 23, 2013

    Next time someone tries to condescend me I’m gonna Hatuey his sorry A!

  12. #12 eric
    May 23, 2013

    To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.”

    While not radical from a ‘common christian’ perspective, I think this is pretty radical coming from the head of the RCC. After all, this is the organization that invented and has defended Just War theory for approximately 1500 years.

    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.”

    Well, there’s a radical and mundane way of interpreting this, IMO. The mundane way is just that he’s saying Catholics can find common cause with good nonCatholics on social work.
    The radical interpretation might be something like out of CS Lewis’ Great Divorce; that nonbelievers are just like believers in getting a shot at heaven, and that the factor which most often determines where anyone (believer or nonbeliever alike) chooses to end up is our habits toward doing good or evil acts (i.e. the habits and preferences that we acquired during our lifetimes).

    Incidentally, I am always surprised by Christians heavily citing Lewis. Yes, he was a Christian apologist – but a lot of what he wrote was waaaaay outside of the standard western RCC + protestant set of beliefs. The Great Divorce is only Christian apologetics in an extremely liberal, loose definition of the term. Its probably better classified as apologetics for a religious theology Lewis made up himself.

  13. #13 mandas
    May 23, 2013

    It’s pretty clear that atheists won’t go to heaven, because we know that such a place does not exist.

    I’m more interested in the hypocrisy which suggests that it is blasphemy to kill in the name of god. Must not have read his old testament.

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    Harrisonburg, VA
    May 24, 2013

    couchloc –

    According to their official teaching, the Roman Catholic Church is the one true church. Jesus is the head of the Church and they are the body. That was affirmed at Vatican II. Protestantism is formally an error, though its adherents are viewed as duped, and not to be held responsible for the errors of their forebears. They do countenance the possibility that some people not strictly within the boundaries of Roman Catholicism can still achieve salvation, but only because it is possible for them to be “Catholic in spirit..”

    That all sounds pretty exclusivist to me.

  15. #15 Reginald Selkirk
    May 24, 2013

    It’s pretty clear that atheists won’t go to heaven, because we know that such a place does not exist.

    From the atheist perspective, yes. But the theist is left to explain how their omnibenevolent God could condemn a morally good person to eternal torment.

  16. #16 eric
    May 24, 2013

    The Vatican has since released a statement saying that, yes, all non-catholics still go to hell. Link to CNN

    Evidently the Pope meant to just offer fairly standard platitudes, and was not making any sort of new theological point.

  17. #17 couchloc
    May 24, 2013

    Jason,

    It seems you are using the term “exclusivist” in a colloquial sense, according to which catholicism retains some exclusivist elements. But in philosophical discussions there is a well-known contrast between exclusivist/inclusivist/pluralist approaches towards other religions that I’m referring to and which represents catholicism’s “official” teaching. It is consistent with what andre @5 noted above, and according to it catholicism is not exclusivist. Here is one discussion of this issue (sorry it’s long).

    “The twentieth-century itself was a catalyst for change. The traditional understandings underpinning Christian theology could no longer be sustained in the face of new and multiple socio-cultural realities. There was an official shift from exclusivism to inclusivism….” (6)

    google: “The Catholic Church’s Theological Approach to Other Religions”

  18. #18 aMNb
    May 24, 2013

    “hough it would be a big thing …”
    I don’t understand why. Frankly I don’t give an SRD for whether the pope thinks me going to hell or not. Complaining about what the pope says implies
    1) that he is important to you;
    2) that what he says about religion is relevant to you.
    Not to me.
    I prefer indifference to dislike. The same for that silly exorcism thing that keeps some atheists busy. The best cure of being possessed by demons is getting rid of all kind of superstitions, including the RC-faith.
    (the possession thing happens now and then on my school in Moengo Suriname, so I know first hand what I’m writing about).

  19. #19 Charles Sullivan
    May 24, 2013

    I think this is part of the official Catholic position on the Natural Law Theory of morality. The idea is that God has given us the gifts of reason and a moral conscience, the believer and nonbeliever alike. In this way the nonbeliever can do morally good works (if these gifts are exercised properly), but he or she fails to recognize that these gifts come from God. But there is no salvation after death for the unbeliever, according to the RCC.

  20. #20 Blaine
    May 25, 2013

    Perhaps he believes in univeral reconciliation which is not an unheard of position in Christianity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_reconciliation. According to Richard J. Bauckham at Cambridge: “Among the less conservative, universal salvation, either as hope or as dogma, is now so widely accepted that many theologians assume it virtually without argument.”

  21. #21 Richard
    May 28, 2013

    Robert Wright interviewed Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete (http://meaningoflife.tv/video.php?speaker=albacete&topic=complete), who makes a pretty strong statement that an atheist could go to heaven, maybe even having a better chance than he (Albacete) does. Also in the interview is a good bit on Albaete’s take on evolution.

  22. #22 Richard
    May 28, 2013

    Albacete’s take on this is that it isn’t just good works that would potentially get an atheist into heaven, but “what’s in his heart,” whatever that means. He does try to explain it, not very successfully in my opinion. He also says that this is idea that non Catholics, including atheists, could be saved is not something new or unusual to Catholic theology.