It was the most dramatic advance in theological doctrine of the past five hundred years. No, make that the past 1,000.
On May 22, 2013 Pope Francis, the new head of the Roman Catholic Church chosen and installed just two months earlier, made this remarkable statement in a homily (a religious discourse that is intended primarily for spiritual edification) at the Vatican in Rome:
"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the blood of Christ. All of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!"
The pronouncement both startled and delighted people around the world. For millennia the Catholic Church has taught that only Catholics go to heaven. Other Christian denominations have, of course, disputed this, but have agreed with the broader Catholic doctrine declaring that belief in and acceptance of Jesus Christ as Divine, as the Son of God, and as one's personal Lord and Savior is the only pathway to, and an absolute requirement for, eternal salvation. Non-Christians, in other words, were going to hell after death.
It doesn't matter how good a person was, how kind or generous, compassionate or caring. No equivocation or compromise has ever been offered by Christian denominations. You were either a Christian or you were condemned to everlasting damnation and indescribable eternal suffering in the fires of Hades.
You can imagine, then, the consternation of church officials in all Christian religions worldwide when the pope did not stop with his statement above. He went on to say that everyone was eligible for heaven. In his own words: "Even the atheists! Everyone!"
The blood of Christ shed on the cross "makes us children of God of the first class!" Francis bubbled. "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."
Even then the new pontiff was not finished.
"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," Francis said.
Then, once again, he addressed the question of whether even those who do not embrace the concept of God at all can find their way to heaven.
"'But I don't believe, Father. I am an atheist!"' Francis said, speaking to himself as if he were someone else. Then he answered the 'voice' of others who want to know about ever getting to heaven. "But do good," this gentle worldwide spiritual leader responded, and "we will meet one another there."
The reverberations must surely have rattled windows in all the offices of all the Christian church leaders on the planet. Everybody took note. Was the pope—who, according to Catholic doctrine, is the infallible voice of God on Earth—actually saying that a person does not have to be Christian . . . does not even have to believe in God . . . in order to go to heaven?
Yes. That is exactly what he was saying.
Was this sweet man actually declaring that doing and being "good" is all that is necessary for redemption and salvation?
Yes. That is exactly what he was declaring.
And so, the very next day, officials of the Most Holy Roman Catholic Church rushed to reverse their highest leader's highest thought about the Most High. They had to. They had no choice. The pope had just brought down two thousand years of Christian doctrine.
God does not permit people to get into heaven merely by being good, the church's hierarchy said. Indeed, the Church officially declared that one had to not only believe in Christ, but be a member of the Catholic Church (not some other church), in order to be redeemed.
An "explanatory note on the meaning of salvation" was released to the worldwide media by Father Thomas Rosica, a spokesman for the Vatican hierarchy. "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," the official Vatican statement said. In other words, if you know of the Catholic Church, you've got to be a member of it to get into heaven.
Addressing the age-old question of what happens to people who never heard of Jesus or of the Catholic Church, Rosica added that 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."
Thus, the few human beings remaining in the remotest outposts of our species who have never heard of the Catholic Church or of Jesus Christ can be "saved" without them—but if you know about either, you'd better get on board.