Is Pope Francis a universalist heretic?

Is Pope Francis a universalist heretic? May 24, 2013

Oh mercy! The evangelicals have so wanted to make peace with the Catholics, because they make for such great allies in the culture wars. They’re not just anti-abortion; they’re anti-condom! So we’ve tried to overlook the whole Mary thing. But then they elected this pope who washes the feet of criminals. And he says negative things about capitalism. And now he says that non-Christians are capable of doing good and are in fact redeemed by Christ. Is Pope Francis a flaming universalist heretic?

It’s hard to stay in facetious character for very long. If I were still a high school teacher and not someone who shares the body and blood of Christ with my flock and considers my soon-to-be-ordained wife just as capable of doing so, then Pope Francis would have pushed me over the edge into a full-blown conversion to Catholicism. Wow, what that man is doing makes me so hopeful for the future of the body of Christ. It’s the Pentecostals and the Catholics, supposedly opposite ends of the spectrum, who are the future of Christianity.

In any case, I wanted to address the pope’s most recent comments on the goodness of non-Christians which have scandalized more than a few evangelicals. Here’s what he said about the proverbial atheist who is nonetheless a good person:

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. Instead, this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.

I have talked before about my hypothesis that a misinterpretation of Romans 3 has caused Christians to think it pious to talk about how wicked the rest of humanity is: what I call the doctrine of the total depravity of everyone else. When Paul cites the psalm in Romans 3 which says that “no one is righteous,” he is not trying to say, “All of humanity is wicked, we just don’t realize how terrible they are because we don’t have God’s standards,” which is the default evangelical interpretation. On the contrary, he is citing an indicting example from Israel’s history that answers the question he opens with: “What then? Are we any better off?” (Romans 3:9). So basically, he’s making the opposite point from the one that evangelicals often use this passage to make. Instead of saying those other people are so evil but we aren’t, Paul is saying we’re not any better than them.

Paul talked about himself being “chief among sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). When each of us as Christians embraces that attitude of radical humility, then we are made into people who “in humility regard others as better than ourselves” (Philippians 2:3). It is not impious as a Christian to call others good; it is impious to call myself good. The quintessential Christian virtue is the recognition that any good I do is only made possible through the grace of God and is to His glory alone. It is not that I revel in self-deprecation but rather that I am set free from the cursed slavery of trying to take credit for my good deeds and keep score. When I have a theology that regards others as utterly wicked, the result is my own entrapment in spiritual pride.

So here was the other controversial paragraph that Pope Francis busted out:

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.

This is a genius blueprint for effective evangelism. Instead of trying to argue people on the sidewalk into admitting they’ve violated one of the Ten Commandments and deserve to be tortured eternally (like sidewalk evangelism guru Ray Comfort), what Francis proposes is that we work together with atheists and other non-Christians for the common good in order to make the space for a “culture of encounter.” This is the space in which the witness of Christ is made manifest.

Francis isn’t saying that “doing good” earns your way into heaven. I would say that people who think the purpose of life is to earn your way into heaven whatever prayer or formula they have settled upon, however Biblical and orthodox it appears, are still very far from tasting the living water of Jesus Christ that wells up into eternal life. Such a shallow, self-preservationist understanding of salvation is the salvation of the third servant in the parable of the talents who buried his talent in the mud and gave it back to his master because he wanted to risk nothing and be absolutely sure that he was saved.

Instead of selling salvation like a manufactured product of the personal afterlife insurance industrial complex, we should be doing what Christ commanded us to do in Matthew 25, the one place where he talked the most emphatically about heaven and hell. We should gladly do this in the company of those who do good even though they haven’t yet discovered the source of their goodness, even if they have a different name for this source than we do, even if we don’t consider their theological understanding to be an adequate representation of the God we’ve come to know.

The point is to meet, to encounter one another in the praxis of loving our neighbor. I think we have a much better chance inviting someone to share in the sacred mysteries of Christ when we’ve sat in the trenches with them and fought for causes that we’ve shared than when we come in and say none of what you’re doing is worthwhile because I haven’t yet presented the gospel to you. Really it amounts to the question of whether we trust that God is already at work in other peoples’ lives before we get on the scene and whether God has the capability of using authentic relationships to draw people to Him rather than just the content of our own brilliant apologetic arguments.

So bravo to Francis for providing these words of correction. Could he be the one who God uses to help Catholics and evangelicals alike move beyond the toxic anti-evangelism of culture war that we’ve been stuck in the last thirty years?

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