While reading a blog called Finding My Ground, I was surprised to see that Pope Francis has said some very friendly things to atheists. In one passage he imagines a fellow Catholic asking if Jesus has redeemed atheists, and he responds affirmatively. Later he invites those of all viewpoints to create a “culture of encounter” by cooperatively doing good. He acknowledges that an atheist might find this possibility hard to imagine, I presume because Christian churches have condemned non-believers so vigorously. Again he suggests that we can all cooperate by doing good works. Here’s what Pope Francis said:
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘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. 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. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
Remarkable! I actually looked up the quote to be sure he really said these things:
Sadly, many comments on this statement were either unrealistically optimistic – “Wow! Francis says I’ll go to heaven if I’m a good person, no matter what I believe!” – or cynical – “No reason to feel good about this. Vatican officials are now saying that atheists will still go to hell if they don’t accept Jesus.”
Does anyone think it is likely that Pope Francis would formally announce that all Roman Catholics should henceforth believe in universal salvation? He’s an intelligent fellow, and I suspect he’d rather continue for some years as pope rather than having a tragic “accident” or being stricken with a mysterious and fatal illness just months into his papacy. It would be physically dangerous to make such a radical change in Catholic theology. If Francis or some other pope ever endorses universal salvation, that will show remarkable courage. In any case, the attitude shown in Francis’ comment is warm, respectful, and non-judgmental, and that is a most welcome development.
It may well be that the Pope is ambivalent about non-believers. Perhaps on other occasions he has said things about them that are hostile or demeaning. I don’t know. But it’s a fine step forward for the Holy Father to say this sort of thing even once. And of course, I’m hoping the pontiff is actually a closet universalist.
The author of Finding My Ground is an agnostic who writes that “too much of this country sees all atheists as without morals and absolutes, … selfish, freewheeling relativists who do whatever our reptilian brain dictates.” I encourage you to read her entire post, which includes comments about raising two children who do not believe in standard theism:
For now, I’ll take the Pope’s words as an encouraging sign, and hope he says similar things in the future.
Roger Christan Schriner
To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.