Every Wednesday morning, the pope celebrates a Mass and holds a public audience. It is routine for popes to offer a homily at these occasions – a brief exhortation to his audience that normally follows uncontroversial and tedious paths: do good, attend Mass, or so forth. We had little reason to suspect that Pope Francis would be all that different. After all, he was widely reported to be a theological conservative, a “conventional choice” for the papacy, not that different from his predecessor Benedict. But Pope Francis has surprised. He has turned these historically low-key events into discussions that range far beyond simply religious topics. At his inaugural homily, he called for protection of the environment. At his Easter Mass he denounced materialism and violence in the Middle East. And last Wednesday he stated that even atheists could be saved.
It is, of course, a widely-held Christian belief that Jesus died to save all humanity. But it’s long been a matter of controversy among various Christian groups whether humans have to do certain things to access that salvation. Many evangelicals believe you have to state your faith in Jesus and ask him for redemption. Mormons believe you have to be baptized (either in person or in proxy). And Catholics, traditionally, have emphasized that people who do not receive the various sacraments of the church don’t go to heaven.
But throughout Catholic history that doctrine raised some nagging issues. Most pressing: what about the hordes of people who died before Jesus was born? What about the extra ecclesium, those millions who went about their daily lives in the remote places of the world without knowing that there was such a thing as the Catholic Church, or such a person as Jesus? For some Catholics, those people were consigned to purgatory, a place that was neither heaven nor hell. Some others simply sent them to hell. But, naturally, to a lot of Catholic theologians these answers seemed uncharitable and unsatisfying.
Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century Dominican monk and Catholicism’s greatest theologian, was one of the first to speculate on the destiny of these people. He wrote that it was possible for a person to “obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of the person’s desire for baptism, which desire is the outcome of faith that works through charity, whereby God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies a person inwardly.” (Summa Theologica III:68:2). That is, people who exhibit charity demonstrate that they have been given the gift of faith (because charity comes from faith) and thus God might cut a few corners and save them himself. Thomas was not a universalist who believed that all humanity would go to heaven – he thought that most people in this situation would reject the gospel anyway. But he left the door open for God to save people outside the strictures of the church.
The discovery of the Americas and the realization that there were whole nations rising and falling who showed no evidence that they had ever heard the name of Jesus made the problem even more pressing. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, various Catholic organizations squabbled over whether or not Native Americans had souls, whether they should be baptized into the Church or if God had different intentions for them, and whether the generations of Native Americans who had lived before contact with Europeans were irrevocably doomed. Some, particularly the conservative Jansenist movement, argued that if people can be saved without the sacraments then what was the point of having sacraments in the first place? Indeed, according to the Jansenists, God had populated those unlucky parts of the world that knew nothing of the Church with people that he knew were too corrupt to accept the faith anyway. However other Catholics, particularly Jesuits and other missionary orders laboring to convert the Indians, argued that the seeming goodness of many of the people they met proved the Jansenists wrong and showed that, as per Aquinas, many of them would have been baptized had they the opportunity, and thus they might well be saved.
Thus, the great reforming Vatican II council of the 1960s could proclaim this, in the Decree on Ecumenism: “The brethren divided from us also carry out many of the sacred actions of the Christian religion. Undoubtedly, in ways that vary according to the condition of each church or community, these actions can truly engender a life of grace, and can be rightly described as capable of providing access to the community of salvation . . . For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.” The phrase “the brethren divided” is the council’s nice way of referring to Protestant churches. But beyond Protestants, the decree refers to “communities” as well – spiritual gatherings which lack the traditionally Christian accoutrements of sacrament and apostolic lineage that would qualify them for church status in the council’s thinking. Today, the Catholic Catechism affirms Pius IX: “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved.”
Francis’s declaration is getting so much attention because it seems counterintuitive. In the culture of the American media Christianity is perceived to be exclusivist and dogmatic, and when a Christian leader like Francis says something that seems to run against that vein the assumption (as in this Huffington Post piece or this Salon piece) is that he is doing something radical. But rather than taking Francis to be decisively turning Catholicism on its head, we should see him as he would likely want to be seen: a laborer within the Catholic tradition. He is, after all, a theological conservative – and even his position on atheism does not seem that far outside the Catholic mainstream.