Let’s start with the actual words spoken by Pope Francis, in his much quoted, and often warped, sermon on Mark 9:38-40 and the work of Jesus Christ in redeeming all of creation, including the people in it.
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. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. …
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!
OK, here is what that turned into once it reached the cyber-pages of The Huffington Post, with this dramatic headline:
Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed By Jesus As Well As Catholics, Pope Francis Says
Pope Francis has delivered a homily in which he states atheists who do good are redeemed through Jesus.
Speaking at the Wednesday morning Mass in his Rome residence, he told the story of a Catholic who asked a priest if even atheists were saved by Christ.
In the unprepared speech, he emphasized the importance of “doing good” as a principle which unites all humanity.
OK, what we have here is two crucial doctrinal concepts that have been jammed into a journalistic blender.
First of all, the pope is talking about “redemption” and he notes, of course, that Jesus Christ died and was raised and, as the Orthodox like to say, has thus “trampled down death by death.”
So all of creation has been redeemed. The issue whether everyone in that creation manages, through grace, to accept the reality of this redemption. At that point, the key term is not “redemption,” but “salvation.” And who is saved, through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ? Those who have embraced that redemption.
For another take on this, consider the following — the blunt take offered by the famous/infamous theologian Stephen Colbert at the end of his classic showdown with scholar Philip Zimbardo, author of “The Lucifer Effect”. By all means, click right here for the full video. Meanwhile, here’s the key exchange:
ZIMBARDO: “If God was into reconciliation, he would have said ‘I made a mistake.’ God created hell. Paradoxically, it was God who created Hell as a place to put Lucifer and the fallen angels, and had he not created Hell, then evil would not exist.”
COLBERT: “Evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan. God gave Satan, the angels, and man, free will; Satan used his free will and abused it by not obeying authority; hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love, which is what Hell is: removing yourself from God’s love.”
COLBERT: “You send yourself there, God does not send you there.”
ZIMBARDO: “Obviously you learned well in Sunday School.”
COLBERT: “I teach Sunday School, motherf****r.”
Thus, some accept God’s love and redemption, while others reject the all-seeing blaze of that love and, as a result, refuse to be saved. For more info on that in a popular form, check out (my favorite book of all time) “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis.
Now, there are major debates among Christians that focus on whether this work of repentance — this acceptance through grace of the redemptive work Jesus Christ did for all of humanity — can take place only in this life or whether free will remains true for all souls at all times in their spiritual journeys. That’s a subject for another story and, yes, the role of good works is at the heart of that debate.
But here is the key: There is nothing strange about saying that the sacrificial death of Jesus redeemed all of humanity and all of creation. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI made similar remarks, wrestling with the purpose of the Court of the Gentiles in the ancient Jerusalem temple.
So, let’s repeat the theological “nut ‘graph” in this journalism class.
The pope said all are redeemed through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Check.
The pope said that it is important to recognize that all can do good and, thus, to move closer to God — even if they are not believers. Check.
Did the pope, to be blunt, say that hell is empty, that all have chosen to accept the redemption offered by Jesus Christ? Did he say that no one has chosen to remove themselves from the cleansing fire of God’s love? No check.
Was this sermon worthy of coverage? You bet. However, it helps if reporters interview a source or two, or three (these are ultra-complex issues) who understand Catholic tradition and thought.