Catholics believe that atheists can be saved – so let’s act like it

Benjamin God & Faith

Catholics might squirm at the idea that atheists have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but this is exactly what we believe. A few comments have been popping up on the internet about the homily that Pope Francis’ preached on Wednesday, May 22nd. A few snippets of that homily can be found on the Vatican Radio web site (the Italian original, though still a few bits, can be found here.

The Pope says that all of us have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, every human being. Yes, the Pope did really use the word redeemed, saying “Il Signore a tutti ci ha redenti con il sangue di Cristo.” Pope Francis is not actually saying something new, but something that was already stated in the Second Vatican Council.

The constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium said,

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. 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 His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. (LG 16)

And the constution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes had this to say:

As an innocent lamb He merited for us life by the free shedding of His own blood. In Him God reconciled us to Himself and among ourselves; from bondage to the devil and sin He delivered us, so that each one of us can say with the Apostle: The Son of God “loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). By suffering for us He not only provided us with an example for our imitation, He blazed a trail, and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning. [. . . ] All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery. (GS 22).

So it has been taught, not only by a Pope but also by an Ecumenical Council, that every human being can say, “The Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me” and that every human being has been purchased from sin (redeemed, bought back) by the blood of Christ. The fact that each and every person can be saved is not because there is a way to Heaven outside of Jesus Christ, but that each person is already connected to Jesus Christ because He took on our flesh and blood.

For the fundamentalist and evangelical Christians out there, this is what Saint Paul is talking about in the Letter to the Romans, and particularly in Chapter 5. He is drawing a comparison between the sin of Adam and the sin of Christ. It is a foundational Christian doctrine that the sin of Adam reached and corrupted every member of the human race. What St. Paul is talking about in Romans is the idea that the grace of Christ was even more powerful than Adam’s fall. The grace of Christ is less than the sin of Adam, unless it reaches out to each and every man, woman, and child who ever lived or who ever will live. This is exactly what Gaudium et Spes 22 was saying, that the grace of Christ has reached every person. This means that we can never look at a person and say, “that person cannot be saved,” but the truth that Christ died for all demands that we say that each and every person alive today can be saved, hence the title of this post.

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This does not mean that everyone is going to be saved from the wrath of God, as St. Paul puts it (Romans 5:9), because God has redeemed us but He has also left us free to choose or to reject Jesus Christ. Much of the Catholic commentary (Jimmy Akin here, Dwight Longenecker there) has focused on reaffirming this truth for squirming Catholics.

However, to say that the Pope said nothing new is missing something, because the Pope’s remarks do offer a fresh way of thinking. The reason why the habitually horrible Huffington Post is not off base with their headline, “Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics” goes back to that authentically Catholic idea that we receive salvation not through faith alone, but through “faith that is active in charity and good works,” as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it. This means that we can approach the problem of our rejection of God from both directions, not just from the direction of faith, but also from the direction of good works.

This ought to change the way we talk to our friends. My brother was telling me about someone he knows who is an atheist, and who says he just cannot believe in God, despite their conversations on the matter. I said that it was important to encourage him to live a good life and to avoid serious sin. I said this, not because recognizing moral truths is a path to conversion, but because God is close to those who do what is right.

I have seen that priests and bishops in the Catholic Church can easily fall into a rather unfortunate way of thinking about the moral life as if it is just a Catholic thing. We tend to think about contraception and sterilization like it is the Catholic version of not eating pork, which is exactly the way those who oppose the Church think about it. The truth is that Catholics are opposed to contraception because it treats one of our most incredible gifts (fertility) as a curse, because it damages the body, because it destroys marriages, because it undermines society, because it has a way of poisoning the relationship between men and women into a relationship of taking and using rather than loving a giving. We fail our brothers and sisters when we act as if we cannot expect them to notice that this is bad and we cannot expect them to have the courage to live without contraception.

Christ has redeemed all of us, and His grace is there for any person who is trying to live a good life. We need to start acting like we really believe that this is true.