The Huffington Post published an article that was eye-catching: “Pope Francis says atheists who do good are redeemed, not just Catholics.”
My gut reaction was “All right! Cool!” The charity and love in that statement was very appealing to me. I assumed that since it was the Pope who said it, then it must be theologically sound. Then a Protestant friend of mine challenged me, “Where is that based in Scripture?” So, that got me thinking.
I’m not really good with remembering Scripture, so I have Matt Fradd to thank for his article about Pope Francis’ homily. God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4) and “is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). The Gospel of Matthew needs a bit of commentary for the following verse “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). According to the commentary, “‘many’ does not mean that some are excluded, but is a Semitism designating the collectivity who benefit from the service of the one, and is equivalent to ‘all.'”
Romans 5:18 was also instructive: “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” Paul did not write “justification and life for Christians,” but “for all.” He means everyone: the soldiers who nailed Christ to the Cross, the Pharisees who mocked him, and even the atheists of today.
While my Protestant friend would not accept the Catechism as an authoritative source, its interpretation of Scripture is something even Catholics who felt scandalized by what the Pope said cannot ignore (CCC 605):
At the end of the parable of the lost sheep Jesus recalled that God’s love excludes no one: “So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Mt 18:14). He affirms that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many”; this last term is not restrictive, but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us (Mt 20:28; cf. Rom 5:18-19). The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: “There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer” (Council of Quiercy in 853 A.D.; cf. 2 Cor 5:15; 1 Jn 2:2). [Emphasis mine.]
That last line was interesting. What did the Council of Quiercy say?
Almighty God wishes all men without exception to be saved [1 Tim 2:4], although not all are saved. The fact that some are saved, however, is a gift of the Saviour, while the fact that others perish is the fault of those who perish. As there is no man who was, is or will be, whose nature was not assumed in him [the Lord Jesus Christ], likewise there is no one who was, is or will be, for whom he did not suffer, even though not everyone [factually] is redeemed by his passion.
So, that’s the rub. God “wishes all men without exception to be saved,” but if atheists reject the free gift of salvation, then he/she perishes through no fault of God. We all have free will. It’s my fault if I reject God’s gift.
Ah, but then Vatican II interprets God’s wish for all to be saved even more generously:
Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. (Lumen Gentium 16)
Understanding all of the above, I can go back to what Pope Francis was trying to say:
The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. “But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.” Yes, he can… 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! 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.
That’s the takeaway from the Pope’s message. I need to meet non-believers at the action-level. Do good. That’s where we all have common ground. Become holy, be a saint and do good works with non-believers. Let them see what it truly means to live out the Gospel message. The Holy Spirit will reach out to them. By letting non-believers see how the Holy Spirit worked in my life, God knocks on their door; I can pray that their heart will open.