The Vatican Giveth and the Vatican Taketh Away

There has been lots of attention — and plenty of confusion — in the atheist blogosphere surrounding the Pope’s statement that atheists were redeemed by Jesus dieing on the cross. Plenty of atheists interpreted that statement as indicating that non-believers are not doomed to Hell. If true, the Pope would be espousing a view known as universalism or universal salvation; i.e. that salvation is universally available regardless of belief. Historically, both Protestants and Catholics have considered this to be a fallacy; for protestants, salvation comes solely by faith (a doctrine known as “sola fide”) whereas for Catholics, salvation comes by a combination of works (or good actions) and faith (where faith is usually taken to be prerequisite for works-based salvation). Was the pope being heretical? And what can be said about the response given by a Vatican official, that non-Catholics who are aware of the Church but still reject her are doomed to hell? Are these statements in conflict? And, if they are, what does that say about the Pope’s supposed infallibility?

Of course, I don’t believe that any of the Pope’s statements are infallible, that Heaven or Hell exist, or in the existence of God. Not only do I think faith does not provide salvation, I think that faith — accepting propositions without proper evidence or argumentation — can be extraordinarily dangerous. But I’m interested in the answers to the questions in the first paragraph because I think their answers will determine atheist/Catholic interactions for some time into the future. Additionally, as someone interested in the academic study of religion, there seem to be some misconceptions carried by many atheists about Catholic doctrine.

Here is the Pope’s original statement:

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.

In seeming contradiction to the Pope, on CNN’s Belief Blog, Dan Merica states:

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who 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.”

The first reaction I saw to Rosica’s statements was on Facebook: “That didn’t last long. But, wait, I thought the Pope was infallible…” (Michael Dorian). But was Rosica actually turning the Pope’s statements around? Or was the Pope simply misunderstood?

The pope’s message that all people were redeemed by Jesus dying on the cross is certainly not new. In orthodox Christian theology, Jesus died for everyone on the cross and not just his followers. However, Jesus makes it clear that following him is the only way to heaven. In John 14:6, he states, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me…” So, the Pope’s statement that everyone — including atheists — were redeemed is hardly heretical and does not seem to imply what many atheists think it implies. Although Hemant Mehta might think that the Pope reversed its position, the Pope was simply repeating Catholic dogma.

Nonetheless, it still seems like the last sentence of the quote above might indicate a belief about universal salvation: “But do good: we will meet one another there.” Where is the `there‘ that the Pope is talking about? Knowing the Church’s track record in its relations to atheists, I doubt that the Pope meant we would all meet in heaven. Therefore, I don’t think this is a statement about universal salvation.

However, suppose that the Pope came out with a statement that universal salvation was the case. How would the Catholic church deal with such a situation?

Unbeknownst to many, the statement that the Pope is infallible under Catholic doctrine is mistaken. There is actually no such doctrine. Rather, Catholic doctrine states that there are particular statements made by the Pope which are infallible, but most are merely the Pope’s humanly opinion (which is fallible). Pope John XXIII once remarked that, “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly but I shall never do that, so I am not infallible…”

Apparently, the Catholic Church even has official procedures detailing when and how the Pope may produce an infallible statement. Pope Francis’s remarks about the redeeming of atheists were not made in the way that Catholics believe infallible statements should be delivered. Thus, it was not understood as infallible.

Thus, even if the Pope had declared that universal salvation were true, Catholics would have understood it as a moment of weakness or error on the part of the Pope. Reverend Rosica (and other Catholics) would still be free to disagree with the Pope; there were Catholics who dissented from Pope John Paul II’s statement that evolution not only does not contradict Catholicism but is true.

I still think there still can be something positive to come out of this situation concerning atheist/ Catholic relations. Regardless of what `redeem’ or `there’ meant in the Pope’s original statement, the Pope did not say anything particularly negative about atheists. I think the Vatican’s clarification leaves the attempt to defuse conflict unscathed. It’s a separate issue as to how well that attempt works.

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