The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics made his comments in the homily of his morning Mass in his residence, a daily event where he speaks without prepared comments.
He told the story of a Catholic who asked a priest if even atheists had been redeemed by Jesus.
“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 conversation in which someone told a priest: “But I don’t believe. I’m an atheist.”
Francis’s reaching out to atheists and people who belong to no religion is a marked contrast to the attitude of former Pope Benedict, who sometimes left non-Catholics feeling that he saw them as second-class believers.
The problem is what the Pope means by “good”.
Good, bad, right, wrong, aren’t actually meaningful terms unless we’ve specified how we’re deciding what right and wrong is. Are we saying something is wrong because it causes more (unnecessary) suffering than happiness? Is something right because it is according to some moral law? Is it right because god says so?
All systems of morality have their problems, but none more so than religious-based systems of course (that links to an article I wrote arguing why religious morality is the worst).
The Catholic definiton of good almost definitely does not align with what many – including some Catholics – probably consider good. The distribution of condoms, treating women with deserved respect, fighting diseases using scientific, evidence-based policies (you know, like legalised abortions, condom distribution, etc).
Morality is, of course, an ongoing discussion but we need at least an underlying system which tells others what we mean when we say this or that is wrong.
When you see the word good, the next question should always be “according to what?”. There are many things that Catholic leaders proclaim to be right that I would consider to be wrong. So, for now, I’m not entirely hopeful. Of course, it is better that he’s not condemning atheists to hell. But again: What does he mean by “good” and is his system really something worth emulating?
I would probably err on the side of no. Though I am glad of the civility of this, I’m not satisfied with the underlying ethics.
On Thursday, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation.’”
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who [are] aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”
At the same time, Rosica writes, “every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”
This, then, is nothing more than a restatement of Church doctrine most of us already know about.
Although the pope’s comments about salvation surprised some, bishops and experts in Catholicism say Francis was expressing a core tenant of the faith.
“Francis was clear that whatever graces are offered to atheists (such that they may be saved) are from Christ,” the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a conservative Catholic priest, wrote on his blog.
“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.”
Another priest Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, expressed agreement with with Zuhlsdorf.
To stress that the gospel redeems all people, including atheists, is the teaching of the church,” he added. “This is an objective fact that the church believes.”
Thus, though the Pope isn’t condemning atheists – as some of his predecessors did and some of his fellow leaders do – this still confirms that this probably has little to do with vague forms of secular ethics. It’s furthermore nothing but a restatement of doctrine.
As I mention in the comments, if there’s evidence the Pope really does mean atheists can get into Heaven by doing secularly good things and even if they’re atheists on their death-bed, then I wouldn’t have a problem with this (except for the inherent immorality involved with religious-based ethics).