What was said
It is reactions such as those in response to the Pope's recent homily that lead me to believe the Catholic Church is the most consistently misrepresented institution in the world. What did Pope Francis I say to result in headlines from secular media like:
Pope Francis: 'Even the atheists' can go to heaven (New York Daily News)Here is what the Pope said during the March 22 homily in question (Recap at Vatican Radio; emphasis mine):
Pope Francis: Being an atheist is alright as long as you do good (The Independent)
Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics (Huffington Post)
Pope lets atheists off the hook, saying Lord redeems us all (msn.com)
[T]he Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in the depths of our heart: do good and do not do evil...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. ... Today is [the feast of] Santa Rita, Patron Saint of impossible things – but this seems impossible: let us ask of her this grace, this grace that all, all, all people would do good and that we would encounter one another in this work, which is a work of creation, like the creation of the Father.If you are asking yourself where the Pope said atheists are "off the hook" or that atheism is "alright," you are not alone. Part of the problem may begin with the term "redeemed."
Source of confusion?
It seems some believe the term "redeemed" means one will necessarily go to heaven. In fact, that confusion is articulated in the msn headline, which equates being redeemed with being "off the hook." The Huffington Post article states:
Of course, not all Christians believe that those who don't believe will be redeemed, and the Pope's words may spark memories of the deep divisions from the Protestant reformation over the belief in redemption through grace versus redemption through works.The article confuses "redemption" with assuredness of going to heaven (not to mention that the issue was grace "versus" works, but that's another post). Let's look quickly at the Church's understanding of the term "redemption":
CCC#432 The name "Jesus" signifies that the very name of God is present in the person of his Son, made man for the universal and definitive redemption from sins. It is the divine name that alone brings salvation, and henceforth all can invoke his name, for Jesus united himself to all men through his Incarnation, so that "there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.In Catholic teaching, there is no novelty in pointing out that Christ's redemptive Passion includes all souls, whether atheist or otherwise. Having come incarnate as a human, he is united with the human race.
Hebrews 2:9-17 9But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. 10For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, 12saying, "I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee." 13And again, "I will put my trust in him." And again, "Here am I, and the children God has given me." 14Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. 16For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.Prior to Christ's work, mankind remained in a futile position separated from God, exiled from the "Garden of Eden," in which God dwells. If I might propose this concept in simple terms, Christ's "redemption" reverses the futile position of mankind in Adam, and makes open for mankind the way to heaven. It is as if a door had been locked and was finally opened by Christ. He welcomes all to enter the door, even though not all will do so. The door is open to all, even through all don't enter. The media has confused an open door with everyone having passed through it.
To reiterate, universal "redemption" does not mean everyone will go to heaven. When Pope Francis says Christ "redeemed" atheists, it is incorrect to interpret that as him saying atheists are "off the hook." The media behaved as if the Church did not previously believe Christ's redemption was universal. To hold the position that Christ's work effects only a select group of persons and that all others are "passed over" is the concept of "limited atonement," native only to a few Christian traditions, such as Calvinism.
The MSN post went so far as to claim Pope Francis has parted ways with Pope Benedict on the matter, which is likewise nonsensical, but may represent a lingering resentment toward Pope Benedict whom the media often misrepresented or derided.
Doing good is a place for believers and non-believers to "meet"
If one simply reads what the Pope actually said, the place believers and atheists can "meet" by "doing good," is simply a place where good is done together, which can lead to a "path toward peace." Again, it would be to add to the Pope's words to say this statement lets atheists "off the hook." Rather, the Pope is merely identifying a common ground where believers and non-believers can "meet" because doing good is written on everyone's heart. It's a starting point. From there, the Church's hope, as we will see further below, is that all souls unite with the Church.
So can an atheist go to heaven?
In Catholic theology, anyone who goes to heaven goes there because they belong to Christ's Church. That is a consistently taught dogma of the faith. Three paragraphs in the Catechism shed light on the matter (emphasis mine):
846 How are we to understand ["Outside the church there is no salvation"] often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body: Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.
847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.
848 "Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men."So the answer to can an atheist go to heaven "may" only be affirmative if such atheists "through no fault of their own" are ignorant of the Gospel, but "seek God with a sincere heart," trying to do God's will to the best of their ability. This means their heart is so disposed that if they properly received the Gospel, they would embrace Christ. Remember, this particular teaching is presuming a person is innocently ignorant of the Gospel. Only to such souls would this apply. The Church says that such persons "may" attain salvation if they are of the disposition to receive Christ and thus "may" be in an extenuating way united to that body of Christ apart from which there is no salvation. Ultimately, the Church does not know, concluding "in ways known to [God]" might such salvation through Christ occur.
Not in doubt is that the Church teaches no salvation apart from Christ. If the media cited intentionally misrepresented the Pope's words in order to make it appear as if he teaches that salvation exists apart from Christ, their action is condemnable and even disgraceful.
Getting back to the question at hand, one may ask how an "atheist" can "seek God with a sincere heart" since atheism by definition declares there is no God. I suppose the declaration of atheism would itself have to be a product of that soul's innocent ignorance of the Gospel or even of the existence of God. It may be impossible for there to be such a person who genuinely denies the existence of God yet seeks Him with a sincere heart. I say this because it would seem merely the act of "seeking" would disqualify the person as a genuine atheist. Rather, such a person is probably more fittingly called "agnostic," or uncertain of whether there is a God, yet still seeks.
Ultimately, as paragraph 848 concludes, Catholics must present the truth of the Gospel to all souls and not depend on some unknown, extenuating way God "may" unite them to the Church.