If you’ve read the news or watched it on TV lately, it is no mystery that Pope Francis’ visit to the United States was an eventful one. He spoke on everything from the issues of abortion to capitalism, from admonishing Catholic parents to talking about the gift of the Internet (“The Pope said what?!?” – CNN). Needless to say, the American and worldwide media have been buzzing uncontrollably about the papal visit to the US. However, there is one particular issue that is of utmost importance, and it has created an incredible amount of tension between Christians of different denominations, including implanting some doubt in the Catholic mind. There have been numerous articles written online saying that Pope Francis has proclaimed a new doctrine that assures salvation for atheists. For example, there was a report this past week from Independent UK that reads thus:
In comments likely to enhance his progressive reputation, Pope Francis has written a long, open letter to the founder of La Repubblica newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, stating that non-believers would be forgiven by God if they followed their consciences.
Responding to a list of questions published in the paper by Mr Scalfari, who is not a Roman Catholic, Francis wrote: “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.”
It’s no mystery why this could seem shocking at first. But, of course, in our culture of relying on media sound-bytes and one-liners, we are predisposed to read this statement out of context and blow it out of proportion. “Pope Francis is violating principal Christian doctrines!” “He leads people to Satan!” “Pope Francis is a heretic and he’s going to Hell!” These are all things that have been said. If only we would look at more of what Pope Francis said during his visit to the United States. Then we would find that in no way is Pope Francis proclaiming immediate, unconditional salvation for the atheist. But, before we take a look at his words from September 22nd mass, we must get a few things straight: a few things that are, indeed, primary Christian principles.
First and foremost, we must remember the fact that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world. The whole world. Every man, woman, and child past, present, and future. Truly, he took the whole weight of the world on his shoulders as he hung on the cross of Calvary. No sin committed escaped the covering of Jesus’ blood. Second, we must take a look at what the two greatest commandments for us as Christians are. Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel: ““‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and [a]foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” No explanation is required here. Jesus spells it out for us quite plainly. These are the two principles we are to hold to most closely in our lives. Finally, we have one of Jesus’ famous “I AM” statements in the gospel of John, where he plainly states: “‘I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the father except through me'”(14:6). Again, quite plain. There is no way to the Father in Heaven except through the acceptance of the saving grace Jesus Christ offers for the sin of the world. Let us keep these three things in mind throughout our conversation.
Now, with these in mind, let’s take a look at what Pope Francis said during mass on September 22nd at the Domus Santa Martae in the Vatican. His words:
“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” (news.va – The Official Vatican Network).
Let’s look at the Pope’s statement through the lens of each of the three principles that are listed above, and how each of them is dealt with in the Pope’s statement. Francis gives us a fresh reminder of the redeeming grace that Jesus Christ has shown to the world. Through his death on the cross and his precious blood, Jesus gives us a chance at life abundant, life eternal. But this is not just for the people of “Club Christian.” This is not just for those who do know him. Christ came to love all. Christ died for all. Just listen to Jesus talk about his own purpose on Earth after he had the encounter with Zaccheus in the sycamore tree: “…the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
There is a difficult statement contained in these words of the pope, however. Pope Francis speaks to our becoming children of God through the blood of Jesus Christ and being made in the image of God. We must be careful here. We have to understand what Pope Francis means by this. This comes by asking an incredibly deep question. What was God’s purpose in creating us? Why would God create humankind? God created humankind for himself. God created humans with a soul, which, in essence, is the capacity to know him. Anthropos, the Greek word for man, literally means “the upward looking ones.” We were made with the capacity to “look up.” We were made to be people after God’s heart. However, through our sinful nature, there was a sacrifice that was required. That sacrifice came through the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross: a sacrifice of miraculous and unfathomable gravity. This sacrifice covered that sinful, human nature in the blood of Christ, and gave us, those separated from God, a chance to be called daughters and sons of God. Truly, we are all created to be children of God, whether we recognize it or not. This is what Pope Francis is talking about in his statement above.
Then, we find one of Jesus’ greatest commandments reflected in Pope Francis’ statement. This commandment of Christ is to love all: to do good to all, in essence. Christ spoke all about love during his ministry on Earth, and the passages in Scripture are almost too numerous to mention here in one article. Needless to say, to love is a call of Christ, and to love is also to do good. Now let us make a leap straight to the topic. Are atheists capable of this same love? Can atheists truly do good? Take a look at these sources, and you may be the better judge.
According to a 2011 article in USA Today, atheists are very apt and active in the practice of philanthropy. In the span between 2010-11, Reddit atheists raised $207,000 dollars for the Swiss organization Doctors Without Borders, which is aimed at providing medical care to underprivileged, impoverished countries. Additionally, after the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami of 2005, the Council for Secular Humanism initiated the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort (SHARE). Again, after the Haitian earthquake of 2010, the Richard Dawkins Foundation began the Non-Believers Giving Aid Disaster Relief Fund to help victims of the earthquake (Kimberly Watson, Religious News Service). It should also be pointed out that both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both of whom are atheists, have given the largest sums of money in US history to a non-profit organization (11 billion and 30 billion dollars respectively) which Bill and Melinda Gates started that is committed to fighting HIV, Tuberculosis, Malaria, and a host of other diseases worldwide, as well as delivering necessary vaccines and other types of medical aid to underprivileged children across the world and in the United States.
Yes. Atheists are capable of doing good. Atheists are capable of loving their neighbor just as they love themselves, and this shows. Atheists are more than capable of fulfilling this second half of the two great commandments of Jesus enumerates. This is the place I want to camp out on for a minute, and this is right at the heart of Pope Francis’ words to both Mr. Scalfari and to the Vatican. Pope Francis is calling for the recognition of a common ground: the common ability of both Christians and atheists to do good. And, by this common ground, Pope Francis is leaving it open for Christians as a chance for evangelism.
This aspect is what Pope Francis calls a “culture of encounter.” David M. Perry, professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois describes this situation very well:
Perhaps the focus on atheism, as breathtaking has this issue has proven to be for themediaandblogosphere, misses the more powerful concept at the core of Francis’ homily: the culture of encounter. In the documents from the Second Vatican Council, as well as much older texts, one finds numerous explicit statements about our shared humanity, universal rights, and the necessity to find common ground (“No, the Pope Didn’t Just Say All Atheists Go to Heaven”).
In the sense that we are all human beings, it is obvious to see that, even at the lowest of levels, we all have a sort of common ground that we share. But, it shouldn’t stop there. This lowest level of conversation could be taken so much further for the Christian once we achieve recognition of and participation in this common ground.
As Christians, this “culture of encounter” gives us a chance to allow atheists to have an encounter with the living God through our actions and examples. The Good. The Only. If we continue to engage in truly doing the good, our atheist friends will not be able to resist at least being curious about what we have that they do not. They will inevitably recognize that we have something that is truly worth having: the love of Christ for and in us, and the promise of eternal life through his saving grace. And let me be clear: we should not be too proud and exclusive to keep ourselves from engaging in this conversation with an atheist. If we do neglect them, and leave them as they were after we have achieved this common ground, we fail to be the hands and feet of Christ. We, in essence, say that this person cannot be redeemed through the blood of Christ, which is utter blasphemy. May it never be that we simply quit on such a person. We would be the quitters. We would be neglecting the Great Commission that Christ has given us. We would be insulting the very Jesus whom we proclaim as Savior of the World.
And this is where our third principle comes in. This conversation with our atheist friend will be the turning point: the fulfillment of our establishment of common ground. This is our opportunity for evangelism. This is the time we help the atheist recognize that Jesus Christ really is who he says he is, and that through his presence on Earth and his death on the cross, we have a chance to know who God the Father truly is. We have an image of God in human form. We have an image of the Good: the untainted goodness that is God.
We should also listen to these thought-provoking words of Jesus from Matthew 25:
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not [e]take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
So, brothers and sisters, let us keep on doing good to all, so that we might find common ground with those who do not ascribe to Christ’s name. And, in doing so, we might lead them to the true Good. We serve a servant King who would do the very same, and we are to follow his example.
In conclusion, everyone should take a much closer look at what Pope Francis has said. We should wade through the muddy waters of the various media sources, and seek to gain the full context of Francis’ words. If we did so, we would find that Pope Francis’ heart could not be farther from the dark intentions that he has been accused of possessing. We instead find a man who has given us a helpful pointer on how we, as Christians, should relate to atheists in these times. Not only that: Pope Francis gives us an effective tool of evangelism. By establishing the common ground of doing good, we have an open door to lead the non-believer to the Good: true God and true man, Jesus Christ, the Saving Grace. Let us never cease in doing good. Let us recognize the opportunities we have to advance the Name above all names.