Is this Pope a Universalist?

I have to admit, after reading the HuffPo sketch of Pope Francis’ recent homily, I thought for sure HuffPo overcooked it, but after reading the Vatican site, I don’t know any other way to read this:

“Instead,” the Pope continued, “the 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.”

“Doing good” the Pope explained, is not a matter of faith: “It is a duty, it is an identity card that our Father has given to all of us, because He has made us in His image and likeness. And He does good, always.”

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  • If he was really an unabashed universalist, I can’t imagine he would stay in the office for very long. Unless he out and out says he is a universalist, he strikes me more as ‘just’ extremely inclusive, perhaps as a broad application of Mark 9.40 combined with 1 John 2.2?

    In the quote above (and other parts that he said), he specifically ties this widespread redemption with ‘doing good’… that, if people (regardless of their belief) do according to what Jesus would have them do, then his redemption is acting in them. This seems to be compatible with (a broad interpretation of) this passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    “This affirmation [there is no salvation outside of the Church] 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.”

  • I don’t see the pope implying universal salvation here. He’s suggesting that the whole world and everyone in it has been redeemed, but not implying that everyone is saved (Mark Shea explains this well on his post on the topic: On reading and re-reading the Vatican site, I think the confusion comes from the vague phrase “we will meet one another there.” “There” doesn’t mean heaven – “there” means at a common ground, the starting point where we agree that it is good to do good. That common ground may lay the foundation for an atheist turning His life over to the Lord – since “those who do the truth come to the light” – but I don’t think the pope was suggesting that all of them WILL do so, or will be saved, even if they are doing good.

  • Chris Pickett

    Spot on. The problem is the confusion between how Catholics and reformed (esp. Evangelicals) hear “redeemed”. Catholics hear it in a general – Christ has redeemed the world – sense which can prompt even an atheist to “good works”. Salvation is a different matter! Most evangelicals would hear it as referring to their personal redemption and almost synonymous with salvation. The pope was just restating catholic dogma that been around for hundreds of years.

  • Mark Farmer

    Best. Pope. Ever.

  • scotmcknight

    So are you saying he means what many Protestants would mean when they say he has “died for all and secured redemption potentially for all”?

  • scotmcknight

    The Vatican has evidently offered a clarification but I can’t find it in English at the Vatican site.

  • scotmcknight

    Mark, I think that’s the point; there’s a soteriology at work here in which the redemption of Christ of all generates all goodness in all humans. So it seems to me.

  • I don’t think he’s implying universalism but rather a redemptive work that’s broader than personal salvation.

  • Steven Winiarski

    Scot, I am with you on this one. How can there be redemption in the heart of a man, which spurrs him to do good without there being soteriological redemption? It doesn’t make sense. Also, both Jesus and Paul made it clear that not everyone is a child of God, instead, those of faith have been adopted into the family of God. While it does seem that he was speaking in a general sense, the statements made by the pope just are not compatable with scripture in any capacity.

  • AlanCK

    How do Catholics understand agency with regards to salvation?

  • Do good indeed.
    I agree with many that I don’t think he’s speaking about universal salvation.
    I would love to see us all meeting in the fields of doing good together.

  • Brian Metzger

    Despite the HuffPo headline I don’t read universalism in the Pope’s words. I read an invitation for us all to stop fighting with each other and simply do the good we know we ought to do. Can an atheist do “good”? That’s just a silly question unless you’ve lived alone in a cave your whole life or somehow know no atheists. In the grace of charity we will encounter not only God but we’ll also encounter the Other, the Thou, that all our labels and arguments has kept us separated from.

    Even in this it seems like believers are rushing to argue over his words rather than rushing to do good and see who we might meet there.

  • mark

    Scot, I think your formula is correct. Jesus–by his life, death and resurrection–offers a new relationship (justification/righteousness) with God to all who believe. That new relationship, and eternal salvation, is not one that we could attain by our own efforts–it’s a free gift, a grace. Francis is saying that even those who may not formally profess such belief may, by their lives of sincere striving to do good, implicitly manifest a desire for God that is accepted as faith. That isn’t something terribly new–it’s part of Catholics’ Good Friday prayers. Of course, Francis isn’t suggesting some sort of free pass, or that faith is of no significance. All those who for whatever reason (intellectual difficulties, lack of opportunity to hear the Good News, etc.) fail to come to belief in Jesus nevertheless, by virtue of their common humanity, do have the responsibility to engage in a sincere search for the truth to the best of their abilities.

    Of course the Lefebvrites will not like any of that.

    Re the believe that all may be saved, that is characteristic of some of the Communio theologians, especially von Balthasar and de Lubac. Benedict reflected de Lubac’s ideas in that regard in his encyclical Spe Salvi (13-14). It’s true that Francis, to the extent that he has any theological ideas of his own, tends toward the Communio nouvelle theologiens. However, I for one don’t take his intellectualism seriously in any systematic sense. Anyway, it’s important to remember that dogma isn’t defined in papal homilies nor ordinarily in encyclicals.

    I think the previous commenters are quite correct that Protestants tend to hear things Catholics say in a significantly different sense than Catholics hear them.

    I don’t say these things as reflexive defender of recent popes–I have a fairly low opinion of the thought of the last three in particular.

    May I also add that I HATE disqus?

  • Gary in FL

    I’m glad you posted about this, Scot. I think I’m detecting concern on your part the pope may be a universalist, which surprises me. You commented that there’s a different soteriology at work here, and I thnk that’s true. Might the pope displaying awareness of a difference between a soterian gospel and the Good News about Christ? I ask this having read and enjoyed both The Jesus Creed and Kingdom Gospel, and partly due to them am seeing how soteriology isn’t the core of the Gospel.

    For me this raises a question of whether it’s essential for the Gospel for non-Christians to remain excluded from heaven?

  • M Scott

    There was an excellent comment on reddit of all places that I thought was very good:

    [–]gschoppe 2520 points 1 day ago*

    this may be buried in the wave of “this means everyone goes to heaven!”
    and “yay, the catholic church is changing”, but this is not a new
    teaching, in the least.

    Like The Anglican Church, The Catholic Church has held the teaching
    of “the good pagan” for centuries. The Idea of needing to be a member
    of the Roman Catholic Church to be saved is something that some
    Catholics (I’d venture a small percentage) incorrectly believe, and
    something that has been pushed against regularly by Rome.

    A good example of this (although from an Anglican), is the scene near the end of C.S. Lewis’ book, The Last Battle.
    In this scene, a young man is killed, who has worshipped the pagan god
    Tash for all his life. He meets Aslan (Christ) and is ashamed to find
    that he has wasted his life in worship of a false god. Aslan comforts
    him, saying “The good that you did in the name of Tash, was done for

    However, this does not, in any way invalidate the existence of the
    RCC, or the practice of prosletizing. One of the basic tenets of faith
    is that if you are aware of the teachings of Christ and The Church, then
    you should wish to praise Him in worship, and that you should wish to
    know Him better. You should also wish to share His message with others,
    as awareness of His teachings will help you to follow His path more

    Also, it does not invalidate the existence of sin, as an obstacle
    between a person and salvation. After all, redemption is the commuting
    of the consequence of original sin, that allows us to fall upon God’s
    mercy. Sin and offenses still separate us from Him, but we all have the
    ability to come back to him.

    TL;DR, This is NOT a new teaching. JP2 preached the same message, as did many popes before


  • joeldaniel

    From CNN (in a horribly mis-titled articled, but that thankfully gets to some legitimate explanation):

    “On Thursday, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation.'”

    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.”

    Rosica also said that Francis had “no intention of provoking a
    theological debate on the nature of salvation,” during his homily on

    Although the pope’s comments about salvation surprised some, bishops
    and experts in Catholicism say Francis was expressing a core tenant of
    the faith.

    “Francis was clear that whatever graces are offered to atheists (such
    that they may be saved) are from Christ,” the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a
    conservative Catholic priest, wrote on his blog.

    “He was clear that salvation is only through Christ’s Sacrifice. In
    other words, he is not suggesting – and I think some are taking it this
    way – that you can be saved, get to heaven, without Christ.”

  • C L

    It seems this pope’s theology might be operating from a theological framework that’s less strictly soterian than most Catholics/Protestants and more holistic and King-Jesus-Gospel, so I think “salvation” and “heaven” may be the wrong questions here, or shortsighted questions at best. (Indeed, Francis mentioned neither.)

    Nevertheless, “children of God of the first class” does seem like very strong and specific language if he’s not trying to express some shade of universalism.

  • Richard Harstone

    “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

    “and by him to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace by the blood of his cross — by him, whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens.” (Colossians 1:20)

    “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” (Romans 5:18)

    I could give you many more verses that make it clear that the incarnation and atonement accomplish universal reconciliation for the human race. If that is what the Pope is referring to, then he’s bang on.

    Salvation – and I don’t mean Evangelical go-to-heaven-when-you-die salvation – is another animal and scripture seems pretty clear that that isn’t universal. One can hope and pray for that, but it seems unlikely.

  • scotmcknight

    Gary, I don’t think Francis is distinguishing soterian from King Jesus approaches to the gospel, but I do think he uses the word “redeemed” for the achievement of the cross regardless of a human’s response.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, I’m trying to find Rosica’s text… have you seen it?

  • Randy Siever

    I came across this passage the other day. Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead and the pharisees were trying to figure out how to squash Jesus and his newly crazed followers. From Luke 11:

    49 Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time,[i] said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! 50 You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.”

    51 He did not say this on his own; as high priest at that time he was led to prophesy that Jesus would die for the entire nation. 52 And not only for that nation, but to bring together and unite all the children of God scattered around the world.

    That last verse sort of reminded me of the issue at hand. The prophecy of God via the high priest was that Jesus would die not only for the nation of Israel, but also to bring together and unite all the children of God scattered around the world (and I have no idea what that means, but it sounded quite beautiful in an inclusive way…which I had never noticed before).

  • scotmcknight

    But have you see the social media light up on this because it misreads what he’s saying?

  • scotmcknight

    Dick, I think you are right. That’s what he means with the word “redeemed.” The problem is resolved. He seems then to see that resolution as making all humans capable of good works, and the Christian meets the atheist in the good work as a touchstone from the “redemption” of Christ… but this kind of language is why folks are wondering what the Pope means.

  • I think that’s oversimplifying. Yes, in one sense, we are adopted as children of God when we repent and embrace faith in Christ. But in another sense, everyone is His child to begin with, and that is scriptural. From Paul’s sermon to the Athenians: “For in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.” (Acts 17:28-29, NKJV)

  • Richard Harstone

    Agreed. Western Christianity and especially evangelicals, for the most part, have made reconciliation/redemption/justification synonymous with salvation. A lot of it is mere laziness with the language, but of course much of it is also tunnel vision when it comes to the gospel.

  • Well, ‘universalist’ seems too strong a word, since he still puts salvation as contingent on doing ‘good’… presumably he’s leaving open that someone who doesn’t do good didn’t have salvation acting in them. So his soteriology looks far more inclusive than we would typically expect (from Protestants at least), but not quite universalist as it is usually defined.

  • scotmcknight

    Randy, where’s this text from?

  • scotmcknight

    Randy, that’s John 11… and that clearly speaks to the “universal” scope of redemption, that redemption includes the Gentiles.

  • joeldaniel
  • C L

    Interesting…although Rosica affirms that “outside the church there is no salvation,” he goes on to caution:

    “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.”

  • Randy Siever

    Yes it is…my bad. Too early, clearly, to post. I understood it to refer to “gentiles” as well, but the idea of the death of Christ being about more than salvation, but also for the purpose of bringing together and UNITE “…ALL the children of God scattered around the world” was kind of new to me. I suppose “children of God” would normally be interpreted by referring to other N.T. texts, but the prophecy would have to be referring to a pre-N.T. understanding which (please correct me if I’m off on this) could potentially refer to all those made in the image of God….could it not?

  • joeldaniel

    This makes a lot of sense to me. One may reject, for example, the “Christianity” of Westboro Baptist Church. But that doesn’t mean they have made a decision either for or against the person of Christ. What Rosica seems to be affirming is that we, as humans, can’t truly know the state of another’s heart. That is the work of God.

  • Pat Lynch

    I do not think the Pope has been very helpful in his lack of clarity. His comments were not made to theologians, so we would not expect absolute precision. Maybe he could have done better? I am willing to cut him some slack, but the consequence for a minister of the gospel in leading unbelievers to think that their unbelief does not have an eternal outcome is substantial. And the Vatican “clarification” makes me wonder is by “the Church,” they are talking about the Roman Catholic Church. I jotted off a comment “on the fly” a day ago. Here’s the link. V

  • Steven Winiarski

    Coleman, your reference to Acts 17 is well recieved. And you are right, I did oversimplify the arguement for sure.

  • Steven Winiarski

    I would point out that he did not just refer to creation, though, as his basis for us being his children, but Hs blood. So the problem still remains, how can the atheist be His child through His blood, and yet by his own admission, not have faith that God even exists, let alone in the God of scripture. And yes, I understand the general nature of redemption (Christ redeemed the world), but he singled out individuals in which he expects a certain behavior from on the basis of the work of His blood in their lives.

  • Randy

    Dick, I have heard Lutherans phrase it like yourself but with better clarification than the Pope and with emphasis on Christ as the only way to salvation by Grace through faith. The Pope however emphasizes in his sermon this redemption is for those who do good which to me implies 1. Salvation is by good works or how sincere you are. 2. People who are bad are not redeemed. I could be wrong in my analysis. He seems to be either teaching universalism (or at least partial universalism for only people who do good) or he delivered a very poorly worded sermon. Again perhaps I am wrong for I have not seen the entire context but what I read is disturbing.

  • mark

    I think you’re right about that. If we look for a context for his words that would be it.

    This context is reflected in the “controversy” surrounding the Novus Ordo’s translation of “pro multis” as “for all” rather than “for many”. Wikipedia has a brief discussion of that issue, Translation as “for all”. Here’s a portion of that discussion that may be relevant to several comments in this discussion:

    The 1973 translation was confessedly a non-literal translation, and objections were raised against it not only for this reason but also on the grounds that it could be taken to mean that all are in fact saved, regardless of their relationship to Christ and his Church. Some even claimed that use of the “for all” translation made the consecration invalid.[4]

    In defence of the 1973 translation, it was said that the literal translation, “for many”, could nowadays be taken to mean “not for all”, contradicting the declaration in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 that Christ died for all, though not all choose to avail of the redemption won for them by the shedding of Christ’s blood.[5]

  • mark

    Here’s a passage from the CCC that IMO encapsulates what Francis had in mind. Perhaps someone with more imagination (and more time) can find a specific section of the CCC that deals with “universalism” at more length, but passages like the one below are common in Catholic thought:

    776 As sacrament, the Church is Christ’s instrument. “She is taken up by him also as the instrument for the salvation of all,” “the universal sacrament of salvation,” by which Christ is “at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God’s love for men.”199 The Church “is the visible plan of God’s love for humanity,” because God desires “that the whole human race may become one People of God, form one Body of Christ, and be built up into one temple of the Holy Spirit.”200

    I would tend to agree with those who regard Francis as not a particularly deep thinker, not particularly well educated in theology and philosophy, one who comes to the papacy from a rather limited background, and who are regularly frustrated by the way that Francis expresses himself, i.e., in ways that are bound to be misunderstood by people of good will who may not understand where he’s coming from.

  • Randy

    Here is an article by Catholic writer Mark Shea that may add clarification on the Pope’s sermon.He claims the universalist charges come from the Huff post not knowing religion (No surprise here)

  • Scott Hahn gave a short version of what he thinks the Pope was saying. Essentially Han is saying that 1) Christ died for everyone, 2) All are (potentially) redeemed in Christ, 3) we need to acknowledge the good that others do (even athiests) because that good is driven by Christ’s universal (potential) redemption.

  • LizK

    I’m not that familiar enough with Catholic soteriology to sort this out, but the fact that both we and the Huffington post are talking about Catholic soteriology without mentioning the sacraments makes we think we’re really missing something.

  • Pat Lynch

    OK, here’s the link.

  • scotmcknight

    Ah, it’s that word “potentially” that tells the whole story in Scott Hahn’s explanation. Had Francis said that there’d not been a tempest.

  • I agree. But from what I understand of Catholic theology that was probably an understood in Francis’ mind.

  • Rebecca Wimer
  • The pope has other basic assumptions here than American protestants and is not speaking about salvation at all here anyway, but about the possibility of doing good. His universal redemption is a potential, but we can refuse it…

    See my take here: (I asked a catholic and he literally’ said ‘I nailed it’ in my post.)

  • Here’s an interesting article by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick (he’s Eastern Orthodox) about the Pope’s recent message & whether it was universalist.

  • I guess Pope Francis was pointing out the universality of the salvation OFFER as opposed to views such as limited atonement.

    To my mind, God won’t force anyone to choose Him, and if the person refuses, he or she will eventually cease to exist.

    I’ve one question: as a Christian Universalist, how does one interpret Jesus warnings about hell?
    Keep doing all your good work!

    Lothar’s son – Lothars Sohn

  • seba

    Well, lumen gentium doesnt agree with Shea on this one.
    Catholicism affirms that salvation is in catholic church ONLY, but it is not exclusive for faithful catholics. Redemption is universal, that’s beyond question for every christian and I doubt pope would even tap into this issue, since it’s obvious. Yet lumen gentium states that other faithfuls, jews, muslims and other faiths are saved as well if they do good, that’s exactly what pope is affirming here.

  • seba

    Catholicism affirms that salvation is in catholic church ONLY, but it is not exclusive for faithful catholics. Redemption is universal, that’s beyond question for every christian and I doubt pope would even tap into this issue, since it’s obvious. Yet lumen gentium states that other faithfuls, jews, muslims and other faiths are saved as well if they do good, that’s exactly what pope is affirming here.

  • seba

    Because it was “clarified” by “concerned” fundie bishops :—)