THE BLOG

Atheists: Saved or Damned?

06/06/2013 05:49 pm ET | Updated Aug 06, 2013

On May 22 Pope Francis, during one of his informal homilies, spoke about how the redemption brought about by Christ applied to the whole human race and that he would not be surprised to find himself sharing heaven even with atheists, at least with atheists who seek to do good. However, the very next day, after the pope's words made news, Fr. Thomas Rosica, who is very much involved with the popular Catholic media in Canada, took it upon himself to correct what he thought was a mistaken impression given by the press regarding the pope's words, and instead, seems to have ended up giving the impression -- at least again as interpreted by the press -- that he was saying the pope was wrong and that atheists are destined for hell.

If nothing else, both reports indicate that theological statements or opinions are, more often than not, likely to be misinterpreted by the media. Although while at this point I too am relying on the press reports, still, in an effort to sort things out, I would like to add my own interpretation of what seems to have been both the pope's point of view as well as that of Fr. Rosica.

As I see it, the redemption, in the Catholic understanding of the term, refers to an objective fact -- at least according to the Christian belief system -- that the death of Jesus and his resurrection has made possible the salvation of all men and women. This applies not only those who happen to be Christian, but to all those of any or even of no religion, and not just those who have lived since the time of Christ, but even of those who lived during the previous eras of history. But salvation, or to put it in more popular terms, actually being "saved," is more in the subjective realm -- which is to say, it all depends on an individual person's response. So if a person knowingly or deliberately rejects God's offer of salvation, it is hard to see how they can be considered saved. Otherwise, God would have to override that person's free will. In other words, it remains up to each individual whether or not to respond to the offer of eternal life. Otherwise, nature simply takes it usual course.

However, this being said, I would like to point out that what the pope was saying was, or should have been, hardly regarded as something new. He was simply repeating in plainer language what the Second Vatican Council had to say nearly a half century ago in its Nov. 21, 1964 "Constitution on the Church," when it listed under those who could achieve salvation not only Jews and Muslims, or even those who "in shadows and images seek the unknown God" but even those who "strive by their deeds to do his [God's] will as it is known to them through the dictates of their conscience." And as if the latter phrase was not clear enough, the Council went on say, even more explicitly:

"Nor does divine providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with the help of his grace strive to live a good life" (Lumen Gentium, Section 16).

In other words, what the Catholic Church was saying, particularly in these last sentences, is that those who are unsure about the nature of God (agnostics) or even those who question the existence of such a Being (atheists), are nevertheless capable of being "saved" -- providing they seek what they see as being a higher good.

No doubt, these views seem like a radical reversal of what many Catholics thought they were being taught when reminded of the old saying, "Outside the Church there is no salvation." This was despite the careful explanations of what was called "Baptism of Desire" by the nuns who taught us our catechism many years before Vatican II and who pretty much anticipated what the Council was to say.

Nor does this more explicit teaching agree with what some more fundamentalist Christian groups teach. But I do think it is more in keeping with a church that calls itself "Catholic" (which, after all, means all-inclusive) and which worships God, whose name (at least in its Germanic or Anglo-Saxon form) is the personification of all that is good.