Soteriology Sensationalized

Soteriology Sensationalized June 3, 2013

The pope has spoken – and people act like it’s never been said before.

Pope Francis’ May 22 homily, in which he touched on the redemption of atheists, is still generating buzz.  This is due at least as much to a number of virally spreading misquotations as it is to what the Holy Father actually said.  Now, lest I suffer the fate of other well-meaning explicators (explained below), let me make one thing clear from the outset: nothing I say here is in any way intended to repudiate or explain away the redemption, or even the salvation, of those outside the visible Church.  In fact, I agree not only with what Pope Francis said but also with much of what has been extrapolated from it.  What I do wish to correct is the misconstrued narrative that has been growing around the pope’s message, In Which Pope Francis Says Something Revolutionary Which Is Promptly Walked Back by Vatican Reactionaries.  I’ll unpack the flaws in this narrative in a bit, but first, to clarify the breadth of Catholic orthodoxy on the questions it has raised, a little crash course in soteriology is in order.

A lot could be said about the various views of salvation held among Christians (a more thorough taxonomy is spelled out here [p. 6-7]), but for my present purposes I simply want to give a brief explanation of two extremes and a broad middle.  On one end, exclusivism says that only those who explicitly confess Christ (and, in the case of an ecclesiocentric model, who explicitly belong to the Church) can be saved.  On the other, relativism (along with some closely-related forms of universalism) says that the Christ-event is, at best, merely one of many ways to salvation.  Contrary to both of these, inclusivism says that all grace is through Christ, though not only through explicit profession of Christianity; in other words, that people outside of the Christian faith may in fact be saved by Christ – a view that, in Catholic theology, has been most famously articulated in Karl Rahner’s idea of the “anonymous Christian.”

The former two positions, at least in their most extreme forms, have been repudiated by the Catholic magisterium (with the likes of Leonard Feeney and Jacques Dupuis representing boundary markers on either end). The latter is my own view, and at least by implication it seems that it is likely Pope Francis’ view as well.  But that’s not really what he was talking about in his now-famous homily, or at least not in the way it’s been popularly reported.  The Huffington Post, for instance, proclaimed, “Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics,” which is technically true but reflects a few significant misunderstandings, namely 1) that the redemption and/or salvation of non-Christians is an unprecedented idea in the Catholic Church, 2) that redemption is necessarily interchangeable with eschatological salvation, and 3) that either one depends on “doing good.”

Here is what he said about atheists and doing good in context, courtesy of Vatican Radio:

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.

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.

Commenting on that day’s Gospel reading in which Jesus rebukes his disciples for stopping someone from driving out demons because he was not one of them, Pope Francis was critiquing the idea that non-Christians are incapable of doing good.  He was not saying that atheists can be redeemed if they do good, but rather that atheists can do good because they are redeemed.

On one level, this is an even broader affirmation than the news reports imagine.  And if they find it shocking to hear the pope say that redemption is for all, they would be even more shocked to realize that this was already a teaching of the Catholic Church (as Mark Shea has pointed out).  So yes, atheists who do good are redeemed – and so are atheists who do evil.  This does not automatically mean that all will accept that redemption, but neither does this in turn mean that all professed non-believers will ultimately reject it.

Of course, we can’t necessarily expect the secular press to grasp the rather subtle distinctions in theological concepts such as salvation and redemption, but there is a bigger problem with how the pope’s homily was reported, perhaps fed by popular preferences for sensationalism over substance and soundbites over fuller context.  One recent editorial, heavy on snark and light on factual accuracy, misidentifies Fr. Thomas Rosica, CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Media, as a Vatican spokesman and then misquotes him as saying, contra Pope Francis, that “atheists are still going to hell.”  Having once met Fr. Rosica and having seen several of his interviews, I was immediately suspicious: for one thing, I knew he wasn’t a Vatican spokesman, and for another, he did not strike me as the type to make that sort of hard-line statement.  I looked up what he actually said on Salt and Light’s website and found not a “correction” of the pope’s homily but a response to questions he had received about it, vastly more nuanced than the impression given by the aforementioned article.  The only direct quote attributed to Fr. Rosica (“People who know about the Catholic church ‘cannot be saved’ if they ‘refuse to enter her or remain in her,’ he said.”) was actually taken from his lengthy citation of the Compendium of the Catechism, which, in context, clearly does not indicate a “tall order of eternal hellfire for the rest of us.”  The full paragraph reads as follows:

171. What is the meaning of the affirmation “Outside the Church there is no salvation”?

This means that all salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body. Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her. At the same time, thanks to Christ and to his Church, those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church but sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience can attain eternal salvation.

Fr. Rosica essentially goes on to affirm the doctrinal soundness of inclusivism as opposed to either exclusivism or relativism, elaborating on Pope Francis’ homily and setting it within the context of Catholic tradition.  In a final echo of the pope’s message, he says, “As Christians, we believe that God is always reaching out to humanity in love.  This means that every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved.  Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit.”

That doesn’t sound like much of a walk-back.  And yet the Huffington Post ran with the mischaracterization of Fr. Rosica’s note as a Vatican statement trying “to do damage control for Francis’ remarks.”  To their credit, they did correct the misattributed catechism quote and provide a bit more of a context for what Fr. Rosica did say, but they still erroneously state that he was speaking on behalf of the Vatican and cherry-pick a comment on the homiletic context of Francis’ remarks in a way that makes it sound like an attempt to downplay his authority in general.  Abigail Frymann at the Tablet caught the original mistake, although even she seems to suggest at one point that Fr. Rosica was somehow siding against Pope Francis.  But Frymann, at least, is informed enough to see through the patently false headline, “Vatican corrects infallible pope: atheists will still burn in hell.”  A contextualized reading shows that the statement in question was not made by the Vatican, was not meant as a correction, had nothing to do with papal infallibility, and did not claim that atheists are automatically damned.  So, in effect, the only true word in that headline is “pope.”

The invocation of infallibility in this situation only demonstrates the need for a more understandable articulation of papal authority.  The idea that the pope could singlehandedly and spontaneously cause a dramatic upheaval in church doctrine with a statement he makes in a homily or any off-the-cuff remark, and that other ecclesial authorities would therefore be hypocritical to disagree with anything the pope says, represents a sense of “creeping infallibility” as blatantly as any ultramontanist could.

Unfortunately, the misperceptions are out there and readily available to anyone seeking reasons to believe in the faulty narrative they present.  The least we can do is not to perpetuate them further.  The best we can do is to demonstrate a counter-narrative of our Church’s truest self-expression by living into our Holy Father’s example of “the ‘culture of encounter’ that is the foundation of peace,” whatever that might look like for each of us in practice.

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  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    thanks for the informative post. However, the quote from the Compendium of the Catechism raises an interesting related question: how are we to interpret the words “Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her.” I have known a few people who interpret this in a rigorous and narrow fashion. As one internet commentator told me (many years ago and not on this blog): “Any baptised Catholic who leaves the Church is condemning himself to hell.” I don’t buy that, but am not sure where to draw the line.

    There is a personal aspect to this question. I have an uncle who many, many years ago left the Church as an adult and became a Lutheran. He married my aunt in the Lutheran church and has been an active member of his Church since then. The best way to describe him is that he is a better Lutheran than most of his siblings are Catholics. I never talked to him about this, but my older brothers have told me that in a few unguarded moments he made it clear to them that this was a fully conscious decision and that he expressed a few choice (and negative) thoughts about the Catholic Church. Knowing now some of the details of his upbringing and family life (really bad about covers it) I suspect that there is much to this story I do not know which may mitigate and shape my understanding of his decision.

    Nonetheless, he left and left under circumstances which seem—given the above quote—to preclude his salvation. So how should we make sense of this quote?

    • Jacob W Torbeck

      Why draw a line? I would interpret the passage as saying, “A person is condemned who, knowing full well that they will face eternal damnation by rejecting the Church, rejects her anyway.” And we can imagine all sorts of people who might do this… misanthropes and the like.

      In a clarifying statement about Lumen Gentium, the Holy See writes, “It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.” And so your Lutheran uncle (and my Lutheran family) can be called part of the Church, with the distinction that they lack some elements of unity.

      But then again, such a statement is binding on man, not on God, who will save whom he has promised, and maybe more, and knows the hearts of those who struggle with accepting the Church because of the many problems her earthly institution exhibits.

    • Julia Smucker

      David, you raise a good question, and one that I can’t begin to presume to answer with regard to the spiritual state of your uncle. I only hope and pray that any resentment in him be healed, by the reconciling grace of God.

      In general, I would interpret the elaboration on “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” in a very limited sense, along the lines of what Jacob has said here. That is, the only way to put oneself definitively outside the mercy of God is to understand exactly what is at stake and knowingly reject it. More simply put, as I’ve heard one priest say, “Always assume the mercy of God.”

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      I want to hasten to add that I personally do not have grave doubts about my uncle: he is a good guy and a good Christian, and in this case I am sure that God will know his own. He does, however, provide a very personal test case for trying to understand these catechetical statements which, as the discussion below shows, tend to parse things too narrowly and paint us Catholics into uncomfortable corners.

  • [A]ll salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body. Hence they cannot be saved who,knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her. At the same time, thanks to Christ and to his Church, those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church…

    Here, what does “know” mean? Obviously the uncle whom the commentator above is referring to once “knew,” but then came to doubt. That “knowledge” then was not irreducible, was it?

    Here, in Asia, where I live, there are many who are aware of the teachings of Christ, and respect them, but, at some level are not able to accept the radical CLAIMS of the Christian Gospel. I suspect that, in very many cases, this has little to do with a clearly rationalized understanding of the reasonableness of those claims, and much more to do with a very strong affection for and devotion to the religion of their ancestors. So are they damned because they have some knowledge of the reasonableness of the claims of the Gospel, but too great a love for Krishna or the Buddha or Muhammed ?

    You in America who revere Mother Teresa as some kind of saint busy “evangelizing” “pagans,” probably don’t know that she got in a lot of hot water with the Protestant missionaries of India for saying, in response to Christopher Hitchens’ allegation that she coerced the dying into conversions, that, indeed, she did not, because she believed that, if, at the time of their deaths, Hindus or Buddhists or Muslims became better and more sincere professors of their own faiths, they would, thereby, grow “closer to Jesus Christ.”

    What really needs a great deal more explanation, both for such Protestant missionaries, and, also, for “conservative” Catholics in America such as Mr. Cruz-Uribe above, is how the ancient Roman Catholic doctrine of “implied faith” actually works, in theory. It DOES, apparently “work” in a truly Catholic culture (which, of course, is not what any Anglophonic country is), because it can be seen to be working in Dante’s Purgatorio.

    • Also, I didn’t mean to imply that Mr. Cruz-Uribe is himself a “conservative” Catholic (though he may be)–just that his relatives, who think their uncle may be going to hell, apparently are.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Just to clarify: it is no one in the family, but came from a discussion on the internet. In the family there is at most a mild hostility which is more along the lines of tribalism (Catholics in, Lutherans out) than any existential judgement.

  • Sacerdotus


    Thank you. I had not such kinds words to say about Fr. Rosica after reading the HuffPost.

    • Father Rosica gave perhaps the best homily I ever heard on the possibility of salvation for non-Christians, even citing Rahner’s “anonymous Christian.” The idea that he, of all people, would be walking back on Francis’s rather pedestrian statements struck me as completely unlikely. Not that I’m blaming you, Sacerdotus. Anyone who doesn’t know Father Tom can be forgiven for taking HuffPo at face value. But I second your thanks to Julia for her excellent exposition of their errors.

      • Julia Smucker

        I’m not certain, but I’m afraid HuffPo may have gotten the idea from the Irish Central piece. In any case, this has to be the sloppiest reporting I’ve ever seen.

  • Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her.

    This is an encapsulation of what, IMO, is wrong with the Western Scholastic method of doing theology. A seemingly bright line is drawn, whereby one who left the Church, for any reasons, however good, would indeed be “condemning himself to hell”. But then, most theologians will hedge it about with questions as to what “know” means, or invincible ignorance, etc. Really, it gets to be about like the Clinton era “meaning of the word ‘is'”.

    The Church has always had images and Scriptural hints of ultimate separation–“hell”–but it has also had the same for universal reconciliation. The East, by and large, has been content to say something to the effect, “We know that salvation is offered by the Church to those within her; but beyond that we don’t know, since it hasn’t been revealed us. Thus, we pray and hope for those outside the Church (whether they left the Church or were never in it), and leave the rest to God.” This is all the Church ought to say.

    Unfortunately, the West has been saddled with a theology of infallibility which tends to parse statements down to nth degree, and even worse, statements such as this, from the Papal Bull Unam Sanctam: “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Now I have no doubt that Pope Boniface VIII was clear in his mind that this was an infallible statement; and probably for centuries most theologians did, too. The problem with the Western Scholastic method of verbal and propositional interpretations of infallibility (as opposed to the much broader and less semantically based Eastern notions) is that once one has been painted into such a dogmatic corner, it’s very hard to get out. The intuition of a broader salvation not limited to the visible Church has never left; and it has come more to the fore over the last century or two. However, in light of teachings on Papal infallibility as defined at Vatican I, and in the concomitant need to avoid the appearance that the Church has, in fact, backed off from doctrine infallibly defined, those who wish to argue for the broader view are forced into intellectual gymnastics: “Well, you have to look at the context of the times,” or “Well, Boniface’s bull wasn’t reeeally infallible, since it didn’t meet criterion X,” and so on. Such attempts tend to come off as, to put it bluntly, intellectual sophistry attempting to say that what is clearly stated as “down” is in fact “up”.

    Schismatic groups that argue that the post-Vatican II emphasis on the possibility of salvation outside the visible Church, and non-schismatic groups like the remaining Feeneyites who still insist that only water Baptism (they deny Baptism of desire or of blood) can save, are actually correct in their accusations that moderns are trying to deny that the many, many exclusivist claims of Popes in particular and the Magisterium in general say what they actually, in fact, said.

    While I agree with schismatics on the intellectual confusion and dishonesty in this case, I disagree with them on their beliefs about extra ecclesiam. I believe that those outside the visible Church can, indeed, be saved. In fact, I’m more or less a little-u universalist, having written at some length about the topic.

    Now for the necessary disclaimers: I don’t deny Magisterial infallibility, or even Papal infallibility, as such. I do think that they need to be understood far more narrowly than has been traditional in the Catholic Church. I also think it needs to be understood in a more ex post facto way. Once more, the model for this is the East. There are entire Councils that had, in every respect, the appearance, structure, and outward form of a “legitimate” Council, but which were later rejected. The Eastern explanation is that even conciliar teachings must be “received” by the whole Church, not just the hierarchy, consistently and over time. The Spirit, working mysteriously among us, has Its say in the long run.

    Now from a Scholastic perspective, this is unacceptably “sloppy” and maddeningly vague; however, I think it’s much less problematic, in the long run, than the doctrinal attitude of shooting first and asking theological questions—often very awkward ones—later. Thus, I frankly look at the larger context of Christian teaching and at the universalist thread running through it from the beginning; and while I don’t deny that theoretically someone could damn himself in the end merely by refusing to be accepted by God, I certainly don’t think that being outside the Church—or even knowingly abandoning it—can ipso facto bring about that ultimate severing from God that we call “hell”.

    • Jordan

      re: turmarion [June 3, 2013 11:13 am]: your mention of scholasticism with respect to soteriology is particularly apt. Certainly, the reformation would have happened regardless of any reforms of the universal Western Christian faith both before and after the early 16th century. Even so, it is important to not underestimate the deeply alienating nature of the advent of scholastic systemization of theology within some schools of late medieval/early modern monastic scholarship. Martin Luther’s writings (i.e. Babylonian Captivity) reveal that faith-only justification and the sacramental union are actually disagreements with the Aristotelianization of theology. Also, while Greek and Russian theologians have read Aquinas for centuries, many likewise disagree with a systematized sacramental theology and soteriology. Scholasticism, perhaps in the view of both Protestantism and Orthodoxy, reduces God’s mystery to fungible intellectual constructs. As you write turmarion, “Unfortunately, the West has been saddled with a theology of infallibility which tends to parse statements down to nth degree”.

      Pope Francis’s quite theologically risky statement on soteriology might be interpreted not necessarily as universalism or indifference, but rather an official and explicit indictment of the scholastic process and mindset. Pope Benedict edged out into traffic by characterizing the Christian West as legalistic and the Christian East as mystical. Pope Francis, however, has torn away the veil of theological rationalization. This, and not fears of salvation for atheists, are the impetus behind the tumult surging through more conservative/self-styled “orthodox” Catholic circles.

    • TJHostek

      I like what Turmarion has to say.

  • T J Hostek

    I think this a v good explication. I do, however, take issue with one point. This “distinction”, and other semantic wordplay like it, is one of the things that infuriates many intelligent people about Catholic theologizing. Redemption & Salvation are synonymous. Too much focus has always been on “heaven” and who’s in & who’s not. Jesus and St Paul hardly ever speak of heaven. What the point of discipleship and church are is building the “kingdom of God/heaven” now-here. Read the beatitudes not as a prescripture for “heaven” but for happiness in this world that “God loved so much that He sent His only Son to redeem” that is, to reveal the lie we have all been living under, which is original sin.

    • The “Pascalian Wager” is, indeed, morally and ethically flawed. “Pie-in-the-sky-after-death” is not worth living for, and Christ never taught it.

      • Julia Smucker

        Agreed, on the pie-in-the-sky thing, but I’ve always taken Pascal’s wager as having to do with something more than just the afterlife. If you really bank your life on the hope that this whole great story (salvation history, if you will) is true, you can’t really escape the here-and-now implications, which are still heavy with cosmic, eschatological hope … but then I haven’t read Pascal in depth, so maybe that’s just my flight of fancy.

        • Julia,
          I have the same impression with little direct reading. This won’t sit well with Dismas, I’m sure, but shortly before being elected pope, in Without Roots I think, Ratzinger proposed a kind of Pascalian wager precisely on the grounds of the here and now. He said that society had been functioning on the let’s assume God doesn’t exist and go from there approach, which, his mind, has led to many of the problems facing Europe today. Thus he suggested instead, let’s act as if God does exist and go from there. Marcello Pero, no Catholic apologist at all, seemed to at least be open to the idea of Ratzinger’s proposal.

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  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    One could simplify this further so that it is both congruent with long-standing RC theology, and with every other major spiritual insight that human beings have ever had. To wit, the source of the capacity to do good is in the fact of our already achieved “salvation” or already achieved (pre-established achievement, if you will) between human beings and the Divine. There is nothing new under the sun, even for the historic achievement of Jesus on the Cross.

  • Ronald King

    From the perspective of a post WW2 child being raised in the RCC legalism and fearing hell were my major influences. I left to search for love which I instinctively was drawn to. The rebellion of the ’60’s and ’70’s was against dogmatic authoritarianism and the history of violence it created or failed to prevent due to a lack of love. “Knowing” anything worthwhile can only come through the grace of God’s Love. I believe that our “knowing” anything is fragmented and incomplete at best and truth can only be found in love. If that love leads us to the Church then that is where we must be. If love leads us somewhere else then that is where we must be. Does hell exist for those who follow love?