Atheists and the Culture of Encounter

Atheists and the Culture of Encounter May 27, 2013

Pope Francis caused quite a stir with the atheists last week, didn’t he?  The pontiff, celebrating Mass on Wednesday at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, declared that everyone—including atheists—was redeemed through Jesus.  “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics,” the Pope said.

The media was abuzz:  The Huffington Post headline read,

Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good

Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics

The New York Daily News said:

 Pope Francis: ‘Even the atheists’ can go to heaven

Is this really what the Pope was saying?  Well, not exactly. 

Dr. Scott Hahn, professor of theology and scripture at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, explained it well:

 Lots of people are criticizing Pope Francis’ teaching earlier this week, as if he’s deviating from the Church’s teaching on the need to proclaim the good news… Contrary to what you may read in the media, please notice, nowhere does he even suggest – much less teach – that avowed atheists are saved. Instead, what he actually says is so obviously true and open to a perfectly fair and benign reading:

1. We shouldn’t be so critical of outsiders that we don’t allow ourselves to see or acknowledge whatever good they do, or truth they affirm (even atheists).

2. Christ didn’t die to save only Catholics/Christians, but everybody (even atheists).

3. Since all are redeemed by Christ – at least potentially – we should be looking for ways to build bridges with them in order to actualize that redemptive potential, by showing them that whatever truth and goodness they embrace comes from – and leads to – Christ.

Fr. Peter Stravinskas, founder of The Catholic Answer and founder and superior of the Priestly Society of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, agreed that the Pope’s statement was accurate, but hoped that he would speak more carefully in the future in order to avoid confusion.  In an interview with guest host Jerry Usher on “Kresta in the Afternoon”, Father Stravinskas noted that Pope Francis’ informal approach is charming, very human.  “But,” said Fr. Stravinskas, “he’s not the parish priest of the church at Oshkosh; so what he says has to be carefully reviewed by people.”  He hoped that Pope Francis had learned the lesson that as pope, with the world listening to his every word, he can’t make casual, off-the-cuff statements which could be misconstrued.

Regarding the confusion, Father Stravinskas explained that Catholics have always been able to distinguish between redemption and salvation.  He clarified:

“So when the Pope says everyone’s been redeemed, that’s correct.  But that doesn’t mean we’re all going to heaven, by the fact that you smile and breathe.”

“Secondly, he says Christians walk with nonbelievers in performing good deeds.  Well, there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever.  Atheists can do good.  Ancient Jews understood; that’s why they had the Court of the Gentiles.  Pious gentiles didn’t exactly follow the Jewish traditions and faith, but they were good people, following a good instinct, and in some way were able to even participate in Jewish worship.”

Catholics, Father Stravinskas explained, don’t share the mentality of many Protestant groups who believe that after the Fall, man was totally corrupt.  Rather, Catholics believe that the human race has been weakened, but not totally corrupted, and so we are able to perform good works.  Actual grace gives man the ability to pursue doing good.

Is doing good only meritorious for a person if he or she is in the way of grace?  Father Stravinskas assured that the nonbeliever, the unbaptized person, can also benefit from doing good works.  “Aquinas,” Stravinskas reminded, “says that God is not bound by the sacraments.  The jury is out on the specific question of whether there is merit in it; but there certainly is a demonstration of good will.”

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