Pope Francis’s conciliatory words to atheists last week, implying that both Catholics and nonbelievers (if they’re good) will “meet one another there”—presumably “there” being heaven—were unusual for a pontiff, though I doubt they got many of us excited that we’re actually headed for the Elysian Fields. But, according to CNN News, some humanists really thought the Pope meant what he said, and was inaugurating a new era of comity.
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said that although he has been skeptical of Francis’ outreach to the nonreligious, he welcomed Wednesday’s comments.
“I gather from this statement that his view of the world’s religious and philosophical diversity is expanding,” Speckhardt said. “While humanists have been saying for years that one can be good without a god, hearing this from the leader of the Catholic Church is quite heartening.”
He continued, “If other religious leaders join him, it could do much to reduce the automatic distrust and discrimination that atheists, humanists, and other nontheists so regularly face. “
. . .Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, said Francis’ comments reflect “the interfaith and inter-community work many of us nontheists are dedicated to.”
That said, Epstein hopes that lay Catholics are listening.
“I hope Catholics, and all people hearing the pope’s statement, will recognize that his words about atheists need to symbolize much more than just a curiosity or an exception to the rule,” Epstein said. “If someone thinks there are only a few atheists out there doing good just like Catholics do, that’s a major misunderstanding that can lead to prejudice and discrimination.”
. . .Even atheists like David Silverman, president of American Atheists, who has had an antagonistic relationship with the Catholic church, welcomed the pope’s remarks.
“While the concept of Jesus dying for atheists is wrong on many levels (especially given that Jesus himself promised hell for blasphemers), I can appreciate the pope’s `good faith’ effort to include atheists in the moral discussion,” Silverman said.
“Atheists on the whole want no part in Catholicism, of course, but we are all interested in basic human rights.”
I guess that doesn’t include the right to go to heaven, though. For, sadly, the accommodationists and interfaith folk were taken in.
Realizing what the Pope had said, the Vatican and other Catholic theologians immediately did damage control:
On Thursday, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation.'” [JAC: I haven’t found it unless it’s simply what Rosica says below.]
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”
At the same time, Rosica writes, “every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”
Rosica also said that Francis had “no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation,” during his homily on Wednesday.
Although the pope’s comments about salvation surprised some, bishops and experts in Catholicism say Francis was expressing a core tenant of the faith.
“Francis was clear that whatever graces are offered to atheists (such that they may be saved) are from Christ,” the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a conservative Catholic priest, wrote on his blog.
“He was clear that salvation is only through Christ’s Sacrifice. In other words, he is not suggesting – and I think some are taking it this way – that you can be saved, get to heaven, without Christ.”
Yep, we can meet those Catholics post mortem, all right, it’s just that we have to accept Jesus first, probably by converting to Catholicism. And so, I guess, must Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and billions of other hell-bound folk. We can at least be consoled that we won’t be eternally licked by flames, since more liberal Catholics now see hell as a “removal from God” instead of eternal immolation in molten sulfur.
The lesson is that the Vatican will be the Vatican, and it’s foolish to think that Catholic theology has suddenly done such a volte-face. They are of the Right Faith, and everyone else is headed for perdition. But I tell you what: I’d rather be removed from God, and in the company of Christopher Hitchens, than to rub elbows for eternity with the likes of C. S. Lewis. Or, as Billy Joel wrote, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.”
h/t: The Friendly Atheist via reader Barry