To the gentle reader,
A friend yesterday pointed out to me an article on CNN titled “Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate.” The article discusses some remarks His Holiness made last Wednesday and the reaction of various people to these remarks. I’m not able to find the full text of what His Holiness said, but a second article on the subject, which I quote at length here, gives some additional words:
“We are all children of God — all of us. And God loves us — all of us,” the pope said in his homily … .
The pope said that by saying, “If he’s not one of us, he cannot do good; if he’s not in our party, he can’t do good,” the disciples were “a bit intolerant, closed in the idea of possessing the truth, in the conviction that ‘all those who do not have the truth cannot do good.'”
However, the pope said, “the possibility of doing good is something we all have” as individuals created in the image and likeness of God.
All people are called to do good and not evil, the pope said. Some would object, “‘but, Father, he isn’t Catholic so he can’t do good.’ Yes, he can. He must.”
The idea that others cannot really be good and do good in the world creates “a wall that leads to war and to something that historically some people have thought: that we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that one can kill in God’s name is blasphemy.”
“The Lord has redeemed us all with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone,” he said. Some may ask, “‘Father, even the atheists?’ Them, too. Everyone.”
The commandment to do good and avoid evil is something that binds all human beings, he said, and it is “a beautiful path to peace.”
Noticing the good others do, affirming them and working with them promotes an encounter that is good for individuals and societies, he said. “Little by little we build that culture of encounter that we need so much.”
Someone can object, “‘But I don’t believe, Father, I’m an atheist.’ But do good and we’ll meet there,” he said.
Noting that May 22 was the feast of St. Rita of Cascia, sometimes called the saint of impossible causes, the pope asked the small congregation to pray for “this grace that everyone, all persons would do good and that we would encounter each other in this work.”
“May St. Rita grant us this grace, which seems impossible,” he said.
Gentle reader, there is not much here–if anything at all–that is new or foreign to Catholic teaching. First, that Christ redeemed the whole human race by the shedding of His blood is nothing new; you can find it in paragraph 605 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (It is worth noting that just because Christ redeemed a person does not mean that the person will find himself in Heaven.) Second, that non-Catholics can do good works is self-evident to anybody who looks around. Third, and this is a critical misunderstanding on the part of the commentators, His Holiness was speaking of doing good works; he was not, by and large, speaking of salvation. The only hint of salvation that one finds in his words is the line in the third-to-the-last quoted paragraph: “But do good and we’ll meet there.” Strictly speaking, this refers to “that culture of encounter” mentioned in the previous paragraph. One could optimistically take it to mean Heaven, but then one must make the additional logical leaps that an atheist who does good will continue in his atheism or that his good works will get him into Heaven. (They will not, by the way; the Catholic Church teaches that one gets into Heaven through grace, which is received from God as a gift.)
According to the CNN article, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to (sic) ‘salvation'” the next day. Given the misunderstanding that greeted His Holiness’ words, this was highly apropos. Given the rarity with which the secular media listen to the Catholic Church, any chance to proclaim Catholic doctrine when it will be heard should be seized with both hands.
But “the meaning to ‘salvation'” misses His Holiness’ point. The Pope was speaking of doing good works with anybody who is interested in joining us in them. In the doing of those good works, we can then meet each other, get to know each other, and recognize each other as decent human beings. When that happens, we will find ourselves (to use His Holiness’ words) on “the beautiful path to peace.” As Jesus said (and this was the passage about which His Holiness was speaking), “For there is no man that doth a miracle in my name, and can soon speak ill of me.”
– John F. Fay