The Pope And Atheists, Ctd

Pope Francis Holds Weekly Audience - May 8, 2013

After the Pope’s words on atheists last week, the Vatican walks its Pontiff back:

Pope Francis has no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation through his homily or scriptural reflection when he stated that “God has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!”  Consider these sections of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that offer the Church’s teaching on who will be “saved” and how. …

[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 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.

As a theological corrective to those suddenly claiming that atheists go to the Catholic concept of Heaven, this walk-back is right. But it misses, it seems to me, the spirit of Francis’ words – which would have not occurred to his rigid and anal-compulsive predecessor. Meeting atheists in the good work of helping and serving others is an indication of openness, of ecumenical commitment to the common good and (in my inference) a sprinkle of mystery about what all of our relationships with God may become in that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. Erasmus at The Economist downplays the significance of the Pope’s statement:

In theological terms, neither the pope nor his spokesman said anything new. It’s a basic Christian teaching that the status of humanity as a whole was transformed when God took human form and neutralised the power of mortality by freely undergoing death. It’s also axiomatic that individual human beings are free to accept this divine gift or reject it. The Catholic church has never ceased to see itself as possessing the “fullness of the means of salvation” but especially since Vatican II, the reforming council of the 1960s, it has freely accepted the possibility that God can be at work in places outside the visible boundaries of Catholicism.

Amidst all the apparent contradiction and confusion, there is a basic problem that besets all communication between the religious and the secular worlds. Religious statements are rooted in a metaphysical system, an understanding of the universe, which is pretty foreign to the modern, liberal mind. In traditional Christian thought, the primordial (and for many modern minds, intensely controversial) assertion is the existence of a loving God, from whom humanity has been estranged. Within that system, self-exclusion from that loving God is self-evidently a “hellish” choice; that is almost a tautology, a statement of the obvious. Outside that metaphysical system, statements about exclusion from God’s love don’t make any sense at all, they sound like pious nonsense.

But at the same time, we are wrong to put human limits on the extent of our Creator’s love for us. We must be open to being surprised by the unconditionality of the love that Jesus introduced into human consciousness.