Did Pope Francis say atheists don’t need to believe in God to be saved? (9 things to know)

Did Pope Francis say that atheists can go to heaven, or that man can save himself by his own efforts?
Did Pope Francis say that atheists can go to heaven, or that man can save himself by his own efforts? (photo: Register Files)

The press is full of accounts that, once again, claim that Pope Francis has said you don’t need to believe in God to go to heaven.

Even atheists can go there, according to these reports.

What’s the real story here? What’s going on? And why can’t the press get this kind of thing right?

Here are 9 things to know and share . . .


1) What is the basis of this story?

In July and August, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica ran a pair of open letters to the pope by Dr. Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist commentator.

In his open letters, Dr. Scalfari asked the pope a number of questions.

Much to everyone’s surprise, though thoroughly in keeping with his way of doing things, Pope Francis wrote a response, which the paper also published.

The Italian original is on the Vatican web site.

Here’s a (not very well-edited) English translation from La Repubblica.


2) What did Pope Francis say in the letter?

Basically, he attempts to enter into a cordial and constructive dialogue, which is exactly what you’d expect.

He doesn’t go through Scalfari’s previous open letters point by point (presumably, that would make his own reply overly long), but he makes some general points and then attempts to answer some questions Scalfari posed.

One of these concerns the salvation of atheists.


3) How did the press and blogosphere react to what he said?

La Repubblica itself gave the story a quite accurate headline: “Pope Francisco writes to La Repubblica: ‘An open dialogue with non-believers.’”

That’s a good summary of what the pope wrote.

In England, however, The Independent headlined it “Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven.”

This was inaccurate, as we will see.

The matter got further twisted in the blogosphere, when Evangelical blogger Jay Younts did a piece on it headlined “The Pope declares Man can save himself.”

This piece was then quoted by Kirk Cameron, who gave it the same headline and helped it go viral.


4) What did Pope Francis actually say about atheists and salvation?

Here is the passage:

First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. 

Given that—and this is fundamental—God's mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience. 

In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. 

The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.

In this passage, you’ll note that after introducing the topic of salvation, Pope Francis begins by saying God’s mercy has no limits “if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart.”

This statement appears to apply to believers—the ones you would expect to ask God for mercy with contrition, etc.

Pope Francis then pivots to discuss “the issue for those who do not believe in God.”

He says that for them “the issue” is following their conscience, which will result in good behavior.

This is what the press, etc., have been interpreting as him saying that they can be saved.

But he doesn’t actually say that.

Believers also need to follow their conscience, and doing so will result in them having right behavior. But if they don’t follow their consciences then they sin and need to ask for mercy with contrition and a sincere heart.

What are atheists supposed to do if they don’t follow their consciences?

Pope Francis does not address this question.


5) That’s confusing. What is going on here?

There has already been one case in which Pope Francis made remarks that the press took as saying atheists could be saved, yet when his remarks were examined closely, they didn’t say that at all.

You can read about that case here.

Now we have something similar happening.


One reason, I suspect, is that the pope may be trying to remain within what the Magisterium has already said.


6) What has the Magisterium already said on the subject of atheists and salvation?

In Lumen Gentium 16, the Second Vatican Council addressed the subject of “those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.”

This passage, like Pope Francis, stops short of saying that people in this condition can be saved. Instead, it says:

Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.

She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.

This passage speaks of the elements of “good and truth” found among those who have “not yet” arrived at a knowledge of God as “a preparation for the Gospel” so that “they may finally have life.”

Thus when the text says that divine providence does not “deny the helps necessary for salvation” to these people, it may not mean that they can be saved without faith but that God is giving them the helps that they need to come to the point of faith and thus be saved.

The fact that the text is open to both of these interpretations was noted by Cardinal Aloys Grillmeier, who was one of the authors of Lumen Gentium, in his commentary on this part of the document (see Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 1, p. 184).

The same point is made by Ralph Martin in his recent book Will Many Be Saved?


7) Why would the Council not answer this question?

One possibility is that the Council fathers were not agreed on the matter.

There had already been magisterial interventions which indicated that non-Catholics could be saved if they were innocently (invincibly) ignorant and had at least an implicit desire for baptism.

But there had not been such statements made about people who apparently have no faith in God whatsoever and who may consciously oppose belief in God.

The Magisterium also tends to move slowly, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide the Church and its doctrinal development over time.

Many of the Council fathers may thus have thought it was not yet time to pronounce on the question of whether atheists can be saved without coming to explicit faith in this life.

It thus appears that the Council left this an open question in Catholic theology.


8) Why wouldn’t Pope Francis just settle the matter?

One reason might be that he doesn’t think adequate study has been given to the question yet, and so he didn’t want to go beyond what the Council said.

Then there is the fact that letters to newspapers aren’t the place for doctrinal development to take place.

Another possibility is that he didn’t want to appear to tell Dr. Scalfari and other atheists that they’re fine where they are, and so he spoke in a very measured way that would invite them to consider what they really need to do when they have sinned: ask for mercy “in contrition and with a sincere heart”—in other words, to come to faith.

His intent may have been to engage in a cordial, public dialogue that sidestepped the question of whether atheists can be saved without coming to explicit faith and that implicitly encouraged them to come to faith and ask for mercy.

This also may have been a reason that Vatican II phrased itself the way that it did.


9) So the media and Evangelical blogosphere reaction was wrong?


Contrary to claims otherwise, Pope Francis did not say that atheists can go to heaven without coming to faith, and he most certainly did not say that man can save himself by his own efforts.

Indeed, he speaks of the need for God’s mercy.


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