In trying to explain Pope Francis’s statement about atheists that we blogged about, a Vatican spokesman, Father Thomas Rosica wrote a piece entitled Explanatory Note on the Meaning of ‘Salvation’ in Francis’ Daily Homily of May 22: Reflections on Atheists, Christians, and Who Will Be Saved. He nuanced what the pope said, but he didn’t explain it away, nor did he say, as we did in our discussion, that he was referring to meeting together in the realm of civil righteousness. Rather, Father Rosica explained the sense in which atheists and other non-believers can, in fact, be saved:
4) The great German Jesuit theolgian, Fr. Karl Rahner introduced the idea of “anonymous Christian” into theological reflection. Through this concept, offered to Christians, Rahner said that God desires all people to be saved, and cannot possibly consign all non-Christians to hell. Secondly, Jesus Christ is God’s only means of salvation. This must mean that the non-Christians who end up in heaven must have received the grace of Christ without their realising it. Hence the term – ‘anonymous Christian’.
What is meant by this thesis of the anonymous Christian is also taught in “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II (no.16). According to this document those who have not yet received the gospel and this without any fault of their own are given the possibility of eternal salvation…God ‘in the unknown ways’ of his grace can give the faith without which there is no salvation even to those who have not yet heard the preaching of the gospel
Catholics do not adopt the attitude of religious relativism which regards all religions as on the whole equally justifiable, and the confusion and disorder among them as relatively unimportant. God truly and effectively wills all people to be saved. Catholics believe that it is only in Jesus Christ that this salvation is conferred, and through Christianity and the one Church that it must be mediated to all people.
5) There is always a risk in interreligious dialogue or dialogue with atheists and agnostics today that reduces all discussions to mere politeness and irrelevance. Dialogue does not mean compromise. There can and must be dialogue today: dialogue in genuine freedom and not merely in that ‘toleration’ and co-existence where one puts up with one’s opponent merely because one does not have the power to destroy him. This dialogue must of course be conducted with a loving attitude. The Christian knows that love alone is the highest light of knowledge and that what St Paul says about love must therefore be valid of dialogue.
6) A non-Christian may reject a Christian’s presentation of the gospel of Christ. That however, does not necessarily mean that the person has truly rejected Christ and God. Rejection of Christianity may not mean the rejection of Christ. For if a given individual rejects the Christianity brought to him through the Church’s preaching, even then we are still never in any position to decide whether this rejection as it exists in the concrete signifies a grave fault or an act of faithfulness to one’s own conscience. We can never say with ultimate certainty whether a non-Christian who has rejected Christianity and who, in spite of a certain encounter with Christianity, does not become a Christian, is still following the temporary path mapped out for his own salvation which is leading him to an encounter with God, or whether he has now entered upon the way of perdition.8) The Scriptures teach that God regards the love shown to a neighbor as love shown to Himself. Therefore the loving relationship between a person and his or her neighbor indicates a loving relationship between that person and God. This is not to say that the non-Christian is able to perform these acts of neighborly love without the help of God. Rather these acts of love are in fact evidence of God’s activity in the person.
9) As Christians, we believe that God is always reaching out to humanity in love. This means that 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; one can only lose their salvation through serious personal sin of their own account.
Notice how Roman Catholic theology “saves the appearances” (preserves the accepted structures of the past) by preserving the language while giving it a different meaning. Yes, salvation is by Christ. It’s just that Christ can save someone who doesn’t know Him. Yes, salvation is by grace through faith. It’s just that a person can be infused with grace and receive it in faith “without realising it.” Yes, there is no salvation outside of the Church. But a person who does good works and who loves his neighbor can only do that through Christ and so is a member of the Church without knowing it.
This isn’t exactly “universalism.” Not everyone goes to Heaven. Many go to Hell because of their sins. It’s more like “syncretism,” in which all religions can be paths to salvation, with atheism considered another religion.
Thus modern Catholics trump a major stumbling block to Christianity. Though the effect is arguably not to make non-Christians more willing to embrace the faith but to make them stop worrying for not doing so.
Can you see Protestants, even evangelical, doing this? Calvinists could say that God elects people who don’t realize it. Lutherans could do something with the objective universal atonement. Good-works oriented conservative Protestants could apply what the Catholics do. Missing, of course, is the Gospel, the message of the forgiveness of sins. Instead, we see a salvation by good works, rendered as something relatively easy to achieve, something even non-believers can pull off. People who know themselves as sinners are left without hope, having only Hell to look forward to.