#2 -  Pope Francis by Debby Bird, Reston, Va. (Oil Paint on Canvas) - "I woke my two year old and my four year old up early from their nap on March 13th, 2013. We sat on the couch watching the news of white smoke and waiting. We snacked on lolly"Popes" and "Pope"corn. My son did not want me to step away from the TV. "Mom don't miss it." When the announcement came and Pope Francis humbly greeted the world, I knew what my next painting would be. Now my son walks past the 24" x 36" painting hanging at "St John Neuman" Church in Reston, Virginia and proudly announces 'Mom that's your painting of Pope Frances'"

Portrait of Pope Francis by Debby Bird, Reston, Va.

(RNS) Pope Francis’ friendly letter to atheists, published this week by Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, has been cheered by Catholics who welcomed another sign of the pontiff’s new openness to the world beyond the Vatican walls.

But it has also prompted some gnashing of teeth among others, who are reacting to headlines about the pope’s letter like this one in the British newspaper The Independent:

“Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven”

As David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network tweeted: “Say what? Catholics please explain this … Evangelicals are NOT kosher with this…”

First off, Brody and others shouldn’t be deceived by a headline. The pope’s letter itself makes clear that he is talking about forgiveness (and dialogue) more than salvation — and that’s hardly so controversial.

As Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the London-based Catholic journal The Tablet, said in that same story: “Francis is still a conservative … But what this is all about is him seeking to have a more meaningful dialogue with the world.”

That sort of open-handed approach toward nonbelievers and others has been characteristic of this pope since the first days after he took office in March, as he greeted the media and made a special point of respecting the consciences of non-Catholics and those who have no religious belief.

Another point: The debate over who will be saved and who will not is and will remain a lively one in the Catholic Church, but it is not that new, relatively speaking.

As the late Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote, the main break came in the middle of the 20th century, when some theologians — and the church — started downplaying the age-old anathema “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” — that “there is no salvation outside the church,” meaning the Church of Rome.

Since then, Catholic thinkers have been trying to come up with new formulas to give people a sense of who will be saved, and who will not.

The 20th-century German theologian Karl Rahner, a Jesuit like Francis and Dulles, elaborated the notion of “the anonymous Christian,” that is that people who have never heard of Christ (or Christianity) but live and strive in accordance with gospel values can be saved.

The idea was to explain how those who, through no fault of their own, could be spared by a merciful God even if they did not know the Jesus of Christian tradition.

Rahner was often at odds with his fellow German theologian Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), but even Ratzinger himself in 2000 issued an authoritative document, “Dominus Iesus,” that proposed a modified form of Rahner’s concept that men and women of good will could be saved.

Both as a cardinal and as pope, Ratzinger also frequently made common cause with nonbelievers, for example co-authoring a book with the atheist and Italian politician Marcello Pera that praised Christian values. Benedict’s request, he said, was that earnest nonbelievers “act as if God exists.”

That phrase was in fact part of Francis’ first encyclical, “Lumen Fidei,” or “The Light of Faith,” which was started by Benedict and later finished by his successor. In it the two popes write:

Because faith is a way, it also has to do with the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek. To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith. They strive to act as if God existed…

Even more controversial was the thought of another recent Catholic thinker, the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who is famous for arguing that Christians can hope (though can’t be certain) that hell is empty and all are in fact saved.

Disputes about von Balthasar’s theology continue, but in 1988 Pope John Paul II honored the theologian — a few days after his death — by making him a cardinal.

Francis is hardly the only one. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan also pointed to this view of God’s unlimited grace in his sit-down this month with Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, himself a  Catholic.

“If even atheists are redeemed by Christ, why have I been going to Mass every Sunday?” Colbert asked Dolan with a false indignation that mirrored the real questions many in his audience had about comments Francis made about nonbelievers last May.

The Rev. Jim Martin, "Chaplain to the Colbert Report," took this photo of Cardinal Dolan and Stephen Colbert in the "green room" before Dolan's appearance on the show last night.

The Rev. Jim Martin, “Chaplain to the Colbert Report,” took this photo of Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Stephen Colbert in the “green room” before Dolan’s appearance on the show this month. Via the Rev. Jim Martin's Twitter feed


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Dolan’s response: “Look, you don’t go to Mass to win heaven. You go to ask God for help to get you there. You go to Mass to thank him for being such a great God that he wants you to spend eternity with him. That’s why you go to Mass. You don’t go to win heaven, because you can’t earn it — it’s a gift. He wants to give it to all of us.”

The issues, like Francis’ words, are loaded and can be controversial. Ironically, what the pope,  and the Catholic Church, are emphasizing is the priority of God’s limitless grace rather than salvation by one’s own effort — something Protestants might cheer.

Evangelical theologian Scot McKnight said everyone should step back and take a breath. “I’m confident … he’s not disagreeing with church dogma,” said McKnight, who teaches at Northern Seminary outside Chicago. “They are unguarded statements needing more nuance.”

To be sure, there remain significant differences between Catholic views of salvation and the various Protestant conceptions about who is saved and when, and if a Christian is guaranteed a ticket to paradise.

But this most recent episode may not be as divisive as some think.

Instead, the worried observers could have mistaken Francis’ pastoral gesture as an effort to dilute the gospel rather than what he really intended — an evangelical outreach intended to bring nonbelievers closer to Christ, not to introduce relativism into the church.

(Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.)

10 Comments

  1. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The problem is that the media must put long papal statements or writings in one or two headline phrases and that is all that many will hear or read. They also must (for ratings and circulation) put things in the most sensational way. Previous recent popes knew this so were very cautious (or over-cautious) about what they said–and did not reach many people that really needed to be reached.
    This pope is being very incautious –refusing to worry about how the media will portray his words. I hope and pray that his strategy will be fruitful and that he will not become the target of every biblical fundamentalist or Catholic super-traditionalist.

    • Allen Bourque

      Deacon, I must say I see Francis entirely the opposite that you do. I believe he is the most savvy politician on the face of the earth right now (thank God) and that he knows exactly what he’s saying and he’s saying it very consciously. And a part of his natural savvy is that he does it so seemingly casually. But I believe behind that casualness there is nothing that is not coherent and intended.

  2. I think the McKnight’s comment is relevant here. I have said several times in response especially to people forwarding the Independent article suggested that reporting is likely wrong. I read the full letter and the headline in the Independent article was just flat out misleading.

  3. And what is salvation, if not forgiveness? Catholics sometimes are so twisted in their definitions, concepts and all this jazz they forget what early christianity represented or what desert fathers were saying, and unfortunately for catholics, it wasn’t deep theological stuff but simple message of forgiveness.
    We are slowly getting to the point in which it’s hard to say who believes what, you can say “I believe” but still act like church in middle ages, you can say I’m an atheist and live in poverty helping kids in nigeria.

    btw. it’s all silly when we read catholic stuff about “faith”, which clearly states that faith is a gift, and you can’t believe without God giving it to you. Lumen gentium is pretty clear about salvation of people who goes according to their conscience too..

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