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the Pope and heaven

Pope FrancisPope Francis keeps being in the news. If it is not for an exorcism, it is for declaring that “Good Deeds, Not Belief In Christ, are Required For Salvation”.

Actually, Pope Francis never said that – but why let the facts get in the way of a good story controversy.

What about: “Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics”? Nope – didn’t say that either!

I know what the Pope actually said may bore some, but I think it is worth a second look. The pope is calling for a culture of encounter which includes all, Catholics, non-Catholics, atheists…

The Pope’s homily was on Wednesday 22 May, the Gospel reading being [woops! mention of exorcism again!]:

John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. [Mark 9:38-40]

So let’s go to second-hand (Vatican Radio), not third-or-more hand. In the Pope’s homily, he said:

They complain, because they say, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.”…The disciples were a little intolerant, closed off by the idea of ​​possessing the truth, convinced that those who do not have the truth, cannot do good. This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon…. The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation.

The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. Instead, this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.

Instead, the Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in the depths of our heart: do good and do not do evil.

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

Doing good is not a matter of faith. 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. And He does good, always.

Let’s put to one side the recent years of the Vatican working so hard to forbid using the words in the liturgy that Christ’s blood is shed “for all” and insists that the faithful hear Sunday by Sunday, liturgy by liturgy, that, instead, Christ’s blood is shed “for many“! Let’s also put to one side the scrambling of those who want to maintain the us-verses-them dualism, by parsing the Papal pronouncement by parting “redemption” from “salvation”!

Come on. What the Pope is saying is nothing new. The only possible novelty is that it is the Pope who is saying it! And saying it by riding on other “culture of…” declarations. The Pope is calling for a culture of encounter. This is not about me and my self-focused obsession with individually going to heaven (which is how many of the headlines and discussions are framing it). This is breaking out of those fenced-off approaches to a culture of encounter in which we meet the good atheist alongside the good theist – together doing good for others.

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12 Responses to the Pope and heaven

  1. This is merely the continuation of an initiative started out under the previous Pope, an initiatives aimed at (translated) “noble atheists”, i.e. those of good character and little flaming. It is indeed nothing new, and apart from occasional rather empty PR flashes, is most unlikely to result in anything substantive. As widely known, the Roman Catholic Church is very much against any substantive cooperative work or worhip with other Christian churches anyway, let alone us atheists.

    • I hope and pray that your pessimism is mistaken. Your response is totally understandable in the face of history, but I for one don’t want to give up on the vision that the Pope is pointing to here. Perhaps you underestimate the power of a visionary leader to inspire and challenge? Much can be done also at a grass-roots level. For example, I intend to print out excerpts from the homily quoted here and take them to my church ‘home-group’ for discussion. Laughably small-scale, I know, but it IS something. It’s all about facing up to and breaking down barriers, and opening our minds. Oh, and if the Roman Church establishment continues to put barriers up to other denominations, that should be no excuse for any Christian to put up a barrier to people from other religions or atheists. By the way, I am not a Roman Catholic but I am finding this Pope to be a man well worth watching – both for what he says and what he does.

  2. You would appear to be making a distinction between salvation and redemption. I note a number of conservative catholics also make a distinction with salvation meaning going to heaven and redemption indicating we have been put in a position to possibly go to heaven. Acknowledging that I have no idea what heaven means let alone going to heaven I do not think the debate very useful. I wonder what your distinction is. For the life of me and much dictionary consulting etc. i cannot see any distinction. But this all unimportant fringe wondering. i thought your post very worth while. francis is not saying anything new but just more directly or simply which is causing the learned problems no doubt.

    • Thanks, Brian. Where am I “making a distinction between salvation and redemption”. I noted, like you, that some are doing that – I didn’t think I was in this thread? Blessings.

    • Marcus Borg in his book “Speaking Christian” makes the case that of the many occurrences of the term or concept of salvation in the scriptures very few have anything to do with an afterlife. There are three major meanings of salvation (saved, etc.) in the Old and New Testaments: freedom from bondage, return from exile, and (particularly in the Psalms) rescue from peril. Redemption, I think, implies the payment of a price to accomplish these things, especially the “freedom from bondage” aspect.

  3. In passing i found the following on First Things

    then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger had answered from the Christian perspective precisely the question that Pope Francis’ homily raised (if less reverently) in some circles of skeptics yesterday: If non-believers can go to heaven, why bother with faith at all? As Ratzinger said in that 1964 homily, the question we struggle with is not whether God can save people outside the Church (for we know that he can). Rather:

    The question that torments us is . . . why, if there are so many other ways to heaven and to salvation, should it still be demanded of us that we bear, day by day, the whole burden of ecclesiastical dogma and ecclesiastical ethics? . . .

    If we are raising the question of the basis and meaning of our life as Christians . . . then this can easily conceal a sidelong glance at what we suppose to be the easier and more comfortable life of other people, who will “also” get to heaven.

  4. Maybe, on a lighter and more personal note, Pope Francis, like me, and would rather have dinner with an intelligent, tolerant atheist than a stupid, intolerant Christian?

  5. A few years ago- probably close to 9/11 since we all had to provide identity to get into the Temple, I went to Rosh Hashanah at one of the largest reformed Jewish communities in Houston, Texas.

    The sermon was basically ‘can an atheist be a Jew?’

    The Rabi talked around the topic, which is what I understand of early Christianity and the Sermon on the Mount…

    He said to be a Jew is first of all an ethnic situation, one’s birth, secondly, a historic construct, and third, a spiritual calling.

    The young atheist doctor he addressed in his sermon was concerned that she was not a ‘true’ Jew, and he said, by providing her medical services to needy communities she already was satisfying some of her calling…but he also pointed out- you may not feel totally Jewish right now- but in the future you may have a change of heart, and the things you doubt will be made clear.

    It’s maybe that open nature of spirituality people have problems with?

    And why someone will say unless you subscribe to a/b/c…religious content….you are excluded.

    Because if what we do in the name of our religions is not ‘good’…why bother?

    The Pope is right. God does right always.

    In my lifetime experience- that is no abuse in any name.

  6. “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”

    I think that’s the key phrase, and I Make no distinction between salvation and redemption.

    All of creation is redeemed by the Resurrection of Jesus. He is the way, Truth and Life. People are included in that. I don’t think profound evil will survive into the ‘new Jerusalem’ but I don’t think Jesus came to start a ‘pick-me’ membership society. The role of the Church is to witness to the values of the Kingdom, not to form some kind of ‘ark of the elite’ for evacuation purposes. In Wright’s words “The Kingdom is coming here” and I’m sure there will be many current atheists living there alongside the churched. The problem with many protestant views is the reliance on ‘penal substitution’, which individualises and limits the saving work of Christ ans usually links it to an evacuation theology. ‘Christus Victor’, the lens through which the church looked at Calvary for at least 1200 years, and how the eastern Orthodox still do, makes much more sense, IMHO, of the biblical narrative and is completely consistent with what the Pope said.

    • ” ‘Christus Victor’, the lens through which the church looked at Calvary for at least 1200 years, and how the eastern Orthodox still do, makes much more sense, IMHO, of the biblical narrative and is completely consistent with what the Pope said ”

      – Phil McCarthy –

      Amen to that! The problem with modern fundamentalist religion is that is seeks to guard the singularity of a particular understanding of God as ‘partial’ to a particular religious community.

      If Jesus really did come into the world for God’s purpose of redemption; then He must surely have been motivated to redeem ALL – all who are made in the divine Image and Likeness.

      It should not surprise us that a Pope who wanted to be named after Saint Francis of Assisi, should assume the mantle of the Christ whom Francis served – reaching out to all people, including the Caliph, who recognised the ‘Good News’ in Francis.

      After all, we believe that “God so loved the World”…, not only the Church!

  7. Every day out my apartment third story window I see how the neighborhood Catholic church along with secular and various types of former felons work together to perform a community service. The soup kitchen and adjoining food bank run six days a week feeding the homeless and the local poverty stricken in our town. My son and I have been homeless ourselves and we are certainly living at below poverty level. There are housing programs in our town that work together with churches of all faiths and people of all persuasions. We all are capable of good works and for those of us who consider how redemption starts this is a worthwhile endeavor.

  8. ‘The problem with modern fundamentalist religion is that is seeks to guard the singularity of a particular understanding of God as ‘partial’ to a particular religious community.’

    perfectly expressed!

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