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What Did Pope Francis REALLY Say About Atheists?
By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
May 31st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
Pope Francis really did say: "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! . . . . Even the atheists. Everyone!" For one, I do not find this statement controversial in the least. In fact, I would find it controversial if the Pope had not said exactly this. The statement of the Pope is a good, if informal, statement of Church dogma. To understand it, however, one must understand the difference between redemption and justification or salvation.CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - Ignorance of the law is no excuse, the saying goes. Apparently, however, ignorance of the Faith is not only excusable, it appears to be the norm in our secular newspapers.
The most recent victim of ignorance was Pope Francis himself. At one of his daily, informal sermons at Domus Santae Martae (called fervorinos--"sermonettes" or "pep talks"), the Pope is reported to have said (depending upon whom you read) such things as: "Being an atheist is fine, as long as you do good, Pope Francis says, rocking the minds of less tolerant Catholics," reported Rossella Lorenzi in BetaD News.
"Pope Francis rocked some religious and atheist minds when he declared that everyone was redeemed through Jesus, including atheists," reported the Huffington Post.
"Pope Francis suggests atheists' good deeds get them to heaven," said the headline in Cheryl K. Chumley's piece in the Washington Times. Reportedly, the Pope confirmed that "atheists can indeed go to heaven," and this is as a result of "good deeds."
One wonders if this misreporting is the result of ignorance, obtuseness, wishful thinking, or just ill will.
What did Pope Francis really say? What was his message? The Vatican Radio report of it may be read here.
First, Pope Francis really did say: "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! . . . . Even the atheists. Everyone!"
For one, I do not find this statement controversial in the least. In fact, I would find it controversial if the Pope had not said exactly this. The statement of the Pope is a good, if informal, statement of Church dogma.
For example, in its famous Decree on Justification, the Council of Trent clearly taught that Jesus Christ, humanity's one and only Redeemer, through his sacrificial death on the Cross, redeemed both Jew and Gentile, and indeed "all men," for the purpose that the "might receive the adoption of sons." This redemption was "for our sins, and not for our sins only, but also for those of the whole world." This would obviously include the atheist.
To say that the atheist is not redeemed is to suggest that he does not need Christ's redemption, and this is absurd, as every man--from the Blessed Virgin Mary to Judas Iscariot--stood in need of redemption. Certainly, we can find the atheist somewhere between the antipodes of Mary and Judas?
(Judas Iscariot, we might note, of whom Jesus said it would have been better had he not been born (Matt. 26:24), and who Christian tradition puts in the hell of the damned, was redeemed. Under this view, Judas was redeemed, but not justified or saved.)
There is a huge difference between redemption and justification, a justification which, if finally preserved in (itself a grace), leads to salvation. Pope Francis nowhere suggested that the atheist was justified, or saved for that matter, by being an atheist or by "doing good."
The Church teaches that Jesus Christ's feat of Redemption of man was a super-sufficient, indeed infinite, atonement or propitiation to God achieved by the Lord's sacrificial death on the Cross, and so is sufficient to include all men and all sins within its embrace. This includes not only the sins of the elect and saved, but even the sins of damned (though the persons in the latter category, by their free will, have rejected the redemption that could have been theirs).
Justification, on the other hand, is the acquisition, communication, or "seizure" of that Redemption by the individual soul, who is led, by God's prevenient grace, to move toward God in faith, hope, and love, the result of which is to believe those things to be true which God revealed and promised, "and this especially, that God justifies the impious by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." It requires further, a turning away from sin, that is, repentance, being "born again" in baptism which is the ordinary means for obtaining the "sanctifying grace" which justifies, and thereby becoming incorporated into the Church.
Justification also requires the continuing disposition achieved by grace toward keeping and complying with the commandments of God or, what is the same thing, the natural moral law. As Cardinal Burke once put it: "Obedience to the demands of the natural law is necessary," though not sufficient, "for salvation."
For those once justified who have fallen from grace by serious sin against God's commandments or the natural moral law, "they may be again justified, when, God exciting them, through the sacrament of Penance they shall have attained to the recovery, by the merit of Christ, of the grace lost," says the Council of Trent.
To be justified requires faith. "[W]e are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace."
The teaching of the Council of Trent is succinctly found in St. Paul's epistle to the Romans: "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested . . . through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed, through the forbearance of God - to prove his righteousness in the present time, that he might be righteous and justify the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-26)
In a nutshell, all have sinned against God, and are in need of redemption. The redemption is an objective reality, available, St. Paul says "through faith in Jesus Christ," and it is in this manner that the believer is "justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus."
Nowhere does Pope Francis contradict this, as it is not even addressed in his fervorino.
Pope Francis also insisted that in his sermonette that the atheist is capable of doing good. This is a wholesome, even a pre-conciliar, Catholic teaching. In fact, the Church insisted on this truth against the Protestant Reformers who were taking the position that man, as a result of his Fall, was entirely corrupt, totally depraved, and that any "work done in unbelief," as Luther put it, was ipso facto evil.
Again, the Council of Trent promulgated the following Canon against the Protestant Reformers who took the position that any act by any human being before he was justified was evil: "If anyone says that all works done before Justification, in whatsoever way they may be done, are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God . . . let him be anathema."
Here, we might remember St. Augustine's teaching that even the Devil has some good, since if he were deprived of all good he would "cease to be." Confessions, VII.12. Surely an atheist can be given the same benefit as the Devil?
So it is quite apparent that Pope Francis's sermon is solidly founded upon Catholic dogma by suggesting that atheists can do "good," and that it is within the mileu of doing human good, what Pope Francis called a "culture of encounter," or we might also call the "courtyard of the Gentiles," that the Catholic Christian may have the purchase, or the foothold or handhold, to witnesses to the atheist, about his faith in God in Jesus Christ, the Jesus Christ who suffered and died to redeem him, with the hopes that he may come to the Lord in faith and may enjoy the fruits of Christ's redemption.
As Vatican II's Lumen Gentium (No. 16) put it: "Whatever good or truth is found" among any human, believer or not (and this includes the atheist),"is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel." St. Paul did the same among the Greeks at the Areopagus. We must do the same among our marketplaces, our courtyards, our town squares, our Main Streets.
Where else can we meet the atheist except in the agora, the marketplace, of doing human good? This, after all, is the feature of our common humanity. The doing "good" referred to by Pope Francis is what we would call the praeparatio evangelica, the preparation for the Gospel.
Significantly, nowhere does Pope Francis suggest that the "doing good" of the atheist--or the Christian, for that matter--avails him to justification or allows for a sort of self-redemption. He would never say such a thing.
What Pope Francis does suggest is that atheists retain within themselves the natural moral law as a result of being made in God's image and likeness. "[A]ll of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us." This commandment is "within" the atheist like anyone else.
All of this is, of course, solid St. Paul (cf. Rom. 2:15), solid St. Thomas Aquinas, solid Catholicism. The atheist--like the Christian--is required to follow the natural moral law. "He must. Not can: must!" says Pope Francis echoing St. Thomas Aquinas.
"Hence this is the first precept of law, that 'good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided,'" says St. Thomas. S.T. IaIIae, q. 94, art. 2, c. This general, foundational principle of the natural moral law "is the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge." It would obviously include the atheist. S.T. IaIIae, q. 94, art. 4, c.
The Pope is therefore absolutely right when he insists that the natural moral law--which says to all men bar none to do good and avoid evil--is not a matter of faith. It is a matter of our humanity. It is incumbent upon all men to follow the natural moral law. In fact that duty is at the core of our human dignity.
"It is a duty, it is an identity card that our Father has given to all of us, because He has made us in his image and likeness." It is ultimately founded upon, and leads to, God himself, the Eternal law, for "He does good, always," Pope Francis says.
It is the natural moral law, the first and self-evident principle of which is to do good and avoid evil, where the Christian and the atheist can meet. The Christian and the atheists "will meet one another there." It is there, in the common conscientious calling that we should go about "doing good and avoiding evil," that we will try to convince the atheist that part of his inclination to good includes, as St. Thomas says, "a natural inclination to know the truth about God."
The hope is that we may take our brother atheist, from the intrinsic desire to do good, to the God of the philosophers by reason, and by faith, to belief in the God of Jesus Christ, Jesus with the "Heart all burning, with fervent love for men," Jesus who "wills all men to be saved" (1 Tim. 2:4), including the man or woman who, out of ignorance, stubbornness, or rebellion, or whatever spurious reason, denies Him.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at email@example.com.
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