Yeah, but what does he mean by “good”? UPDATE

Reuters reports:

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.

UPDATE (25/05/2013) From the CNN Belief Blog (via Hemant Mehta), we learn that of course all this can only happen via salvation, as decided upon by the Pope & Co.

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).


  1. CaitieCat says

    Good points, Tauriq – and welcome, glad to see your writing here, looking forward to reading your thoughts. 🙂

  2. John T says

    Yeah, but, being gracious about it, it’s great to hear a religious leader talk about the importance of doing good and not the importance of adherence to doctrine.

    Of course I liked it more when Popes talked complete nonsense, it was much easier to dislike them then.

    • Tauriq Moosa says

      >> “it’s great to hear a religious leader talk about the importance of doing good and not the importance of adherence to doctrine.”

      But that’s my point. In terms of religious morality, the two are indistinguishable. And, even if he wasn’t a religious leader, I still want to know what is meant by good. That was the point of my comment – not to disparage him for saying this. Sorry I wasn’t clearer.

      • John T says

        Sure, but his tone was inclusive and the passage he quoted showed he meant that not being part of the faith didn’t mean you couldn’t do good.

        I think we need to be generous in spirit and accept this for the positive point it is – he’s effectively saying (if I understand it correctly) that religion is irrelevant because Jesus will see “good” anyway and not give a hoot about what Church you did or didn’t attend.

        If this is true, it suggests salvation is not via Jesus, but via good deeds!

        Of course you raise a great point – that it hinges on the definition of “good” – I took it in a positive way, assuming he meant charity, giving, helping, compassion etc. rather than religious stuff like prayer, church, stoning people to death etc.

        • Tauriq Moosa says

          I’m very sensitive to issues of charity and charitable reading, so I appreciate your point.

          There’s no reason to think I dispute this inclusiveness and so on, as you point out. If “good” means merely things like “Be compassionate, err on the side of human frailty rather than human antagonism, donate to the poor, etc.” – which are secularly good things you can justify on many levels – then of course I would have little problem. (That would, however, make large aspects of his faith redundant!) However, coming from someone who is a leader of the Catholic church, I’m more sceptical and hesitant about the use of “good”.

          If he outlined it and it fit with secular, justifiably moral things then I would not have an issue and be glad about his stance.

  3. bob says

    Pope Francis specifically describes the “duty to good” like this: “it is an identity card that our Father has given to all of us”.