Did Pope Francis Say That Atheists Can Get to Heaven by Good Works?
Color me annoyed.
The press has been going nuts about remarks concerning atheists that Pope Francis made at one of his daily homilies.
As usual, the press is hyping the remarks as if they are earthshaking, unprecedented, and in contrast to mean ol' Pope Emeritus Benedict.
I know this will come as a shock, but . . . they're getting the story wrong.
Here's the story . . .
Let's start with the context in which Pope Francis made the remarks: One of his homilies at daily Mass, celebrated in St. Martha's House (where he lives).
Pope Francis is in the habit of saying daily Mass for the people at St. Martha's House and invited guests, and when he does so he gives an off-the-cuff homily (rather than reading from a prepared text).
This is actually something new.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI did not do this. They did not celebrate daily Mass as publicly as Pope Francis, and they did not have daily homilies published in this way. Instead, they occasionally delivered prepared homilies at public Masses on special occasions, and only these were published. As a result, if you look at the Vatican web site, there are surprisingly few homilies listed in their sections!
As a result, the Vatican web people aren't scaled up for this volume of homilies, and--MADDENINGLY--you can't find complete texts of Pope Francis's daily ones on the site.
They, apparently, aren't running these homilies through "the usual process," which involves transcribing what the pope says in off-the-cuff remarks, showing him the transcript so that he can revise it if needed, and then translating and publishing them.
As a result, we're not getting complete transcripts of these homilies, only partial ones, such as those carried by Vatican Radio.
And that, right there, is a problem. It drives me nuts, because these homilies contain interesting information, but I hesitate to comment on anything for which I don't have a complete text.
As they say, a text without a context is a pretext. Without seeing the full text, we run the risk of misunderstanding.
The Homily in Question
On Wednesday, Pope Francis gave a homily based on the Gospel reading of the day (Mark 9:38-40), in which the disciples have told a man to stop casting out demons in Jesus' name because he doesn't follow along with them.
Then, according to Vatican Radio's maddeningly incomplete and poorly edited transcript of the homily:
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.”
Pope Francis first applies this principle to non-Catholics in general, engaging in dialogue with an imaginary interlocutor:
"‘But, Father, this [person] is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. . . .
“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!
So far so good: Christ redeemed all of us, making it possible for every human to be saved.
What About Atheists?
Now we get to the subject of atheists, as the imaginary interlocutor asks:
"‘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."
Here is where "the usual process" might be helpful in clarifying the pope's thought. Everyone, when speaking off-the-cuff, encounters occasions where things could be further clarified, and this may be one of them.
We can be called children of God in several senses. One of them is merely be being created as rational beings made in God's image. Another is by becoming Christian. Another sense (used in the Old Testament) is connected with righteous behavior. And there can be other senses as well.
Here Pope Francis may be envisioning a sense in which we can be called children of God because Christ redeemed us, even apart from embracing that redemption by becoming Christian.
This, however, was not what caught the press's eye.
Pope Francis continued:
"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."
Nothing particularly controversial here.
But then comes this, as the imaginary interlocutor says:
"‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
Where Is "There"?
The press latched onto this, taking the phrase "we will meet one another there" as a reference to heaven.
They then inferred that the pope was saying that if atheists merely "do good" then they will go to heaven.
This, in turn, alarmed some in the Protestant community, who thought that the pope was saying that atheists can get to heaven by "good works."
We can deal with the possibility of salvation for atheists in another post, but first we need to ask a question . . .
Was Pope Francis Even Talking About Heaven?
If so, you wouldn't know it from the transcript of what he said.
Let's back up a bit. Remember, Pope Francis was just talking about the duty to do good:
"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."
So if everyone does good, we have a path toward peace. That's the goal he's discussing.
"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.
Note the parallelism between the phrases. Pope Francis is talking about a path "toward peace" and wants us to "meet there" by doing our part and doing good so that we build "that culture of encounter" and "meet one another doing good."
He's not talking about heaven at all.
He's talking about earth.
It's in that context that he has the imaginary interlocutor say:
‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’
And he replies:
"But do good: we will meet one another there.”
What he's saying is that even atheists need to do good on earth to build their part of the culture of encounter that promotes peace and allows people to "meet together" in harmony.
At least that's what appears from a careful reading of the text.
Another translation, found in The Guardian (of all places), better conveys the idea:
"Even them, everyone," the pope answered, according to Vatican Radio. "We all have the duty to do good," he said.
"Just do good, and we'll find a meeting point," the pope said in a hypothetical reply to the hypothetical comment: "But I don't believe. I'm an atheist."
Text Without Context
Remember that saying I mentioned earlier, that a text without a context is a pretext for misunderstanding?
This is why.
This is exactly why.
And it is why I am so annoyed that we aren't getting the full text of Pope Francis's daily homilies.
Of course, even with the context we had at hand, which clearly suggests that Pope Francis wasn't talking about meeting atheists in heaven but meeting with them in fraternity and peace here on earth, that didn't stop the press from getting it wrong.
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In the meantime, what do you think?