Monday, September 16, 2013

Ask Tony: Did the Pope just teach that atheists can go to heaven?—UPDATED

The short answer is "No". Not "not really"; not "not in so many words". Just "no".

In just a few months, a pattern has been set such that the ineffable Fr. John Zuhlsdorf could start a companion blog named "What Did the Pope Really Say?" and not run out of material for awhile. It seems that now a month can't go by without Papa Bergoglio saying something the Vatican has to explain or walk back. The mainstream press has cast the "progressive pope" filter in concrete, and will continue to run his impromptu remarks through it until he dies or relinquishes the Chair of Peter.

It doesn't help that Papa's words sometimes take three or four readings to get clear ... especially if you have to rely on Zenit's English translation, which is only marginally better than Babelfish. When he was elected, Marcelo González of Panorama Católico Internacional sneered, "Famous for his inconsistency (at times, for the unintelligibility of his addresses and homilies), accustomed to the use of coarse, demagogical, and ambiguous expressions, it cannot be said that his magisterium is heterodox, but rather non-existent for how confusing it is." His unique, populist style sometimes gets in the way of his clarity of expression.

Maybe he should get his new head of the CDF, Abp. Gerhard Müller, to proofread these things. Or, there's supposed to be a rather eminent and well-respected theology professor living in retirement at the Vatican ....

Let's start with the context. Eugenio Scalfari, editor of La Repubblica and a non-believer, published three questions for the Pope, to which Francis responded in an open letter. After setting some initial ground work, Francis wrote:

It seems to me that, in the first two, what is in your heart is to understand the attitude of the Church to those who don’t share faith in Jesus. First of all, you ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn’t believe and doesn’t seek the faith. Premise that — and it’s the fundamental thing — the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience [bold font mine.—TL]. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to and to obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action.

The context here is not about atheism specifically, but rather about non-Christians in general. In fact, the question is closely tied with another Scalfari asked about Jews. Moreover, the question was about forgiveness, not heaven, though the two concepts are tied together. However, these distinctions were lost on the press, who proceeded to announce that Pope Francis had opened heaven to atheists, causing orthodox facepalming and Evangelical howling (as exemplified by the noted prophet and theologian Kirk Cameron, who got it wrong, too).

Now, let's go through the drill:
  1. Papa Bergoglio didn't "teach" anything. It's very important to remember that not every word that pops out of a pope's mouth is intended to be a dogmatic pronouncement; popes can have opinions, too. In fact, Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth series was deliberately published under his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger, to separate his more tentative speculations as a theologian from his magisterium as pope. Francis' final words to Scalfari begin with, "I thus conclude my reflections, aroused by what you wished to communicate to me and ask me. Receive it as the tentative and provisional but sincere and confident answer to the invitation to escort you in a segment of the road together [bold type mine.—TL]." As a "tentative and provisional" answer, it doesn't reach the issue of papal infallibility. (It's fair to say, though, that the pope should be more cautious with his obiter dicta in this age of instant miscommunication.)
  2. Contra Cameron, Francis did NOT declare that "man can save himself". Salvation — the forgiveness of sins and restoration of friendship with God — comes from God alone; nothing Francis said in this letter contradicts this fact. We'll dig into the problem of non-believers and salvation below; for now, suffice it to say that the most man can do is cooperate with God's salvific grace.
  3. Not all non-believers are atheist or irreligious. The vast majority of non-Christians fit the description "don't believe and don't seek the faith" within the scope of Scalfari's questions, including Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Shintōists, and so forth. Many Buddhists are "atheist" in the sense that their cosmology doesn't depend on or include a personal Creator God, though the existence of such a Being isn't necessarily ruled out.
So what did the Pope really say?

While the Church has always taught that she is the ordinary mediator of salvation (extra ecclesia nulla salus est), there has also been a parallel thought, first written of by St. Paul and most lately given expression in the Vatican II dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium 16, that "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." Many non-believers yet believe in an overarching Supernature to which they are responsible, and which encodes some form of retributive and/or compensatory justice.

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares (Romans 2:12-16 NIV).

But salvation implies forgiveness, which brings up other questions in response: If you don't know or seek God, then from whom do you ask forgiveness? How do you reconcile and regain friendship with a Being who you either do not know or have rejected, in whom you've placed no trust?

For, "every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved." But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!" ... So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ. (Romans 10:13-15, 17)

And what if you don't believe in sin per se? For there are many unbelievers who believe religion is simply a means of social control, especially given the concepts of sin, final judgment and damnation. On what grounds then should God forgive what you don't repent? (Mark 9:24: "I believe! Help my unbelief!")

"Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin" (Mark 3:29; cf. Matthew 12:32; Luke 12:10). There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit (cf. Bl. John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem 46). Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss. (CCC 1864)

The only way out for the non-believer, as Pope Francis was trying to say, is to conform with the natural law as far as it can be known within the non-believer's religious context, to "be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), so that forgiveness isn't required. This is not impossible, since just men and women have been known in every nation and every time: "God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (St. Peter, Acts 10:34-35).

At the same time, though, this reasserts rather than disproves the necessity of the Church and her mission (Matthew 28:19-20). For few are capable of such heroic virtue (Romans 3:9-18), and it's God's desire that all men partake of salvation (John 3:16-17; cf. Luke 3:6; 1 Timothy 2:4; Titus 2:11). The propensity to sin is always working within us, trying to get us to be "good enough" ... which really means continuing to sin while using one's good works to rationalize the X% of one's works that aren't good. Even Christians try to lower the bar; but the bar is not for us to set.

So here's the takeaway:

  1. God forgives non-believers who have not, by an act of free will and in full knowledge, foreclosed any possible friendship with Him, and who constantly strive to do good and avoid evil.
  2. Such extraordinary saving action on God's part, precisely because it is extraordinary, does not diminish the utility or necessity of the Church's sacraments and teaching magisterium.
  3. Forgiveness, however, is always and ever conditioned by repentance: to be forgiven your sin, you must first repent of your sin.

Update: September 16, 2013

Francis Phillips of points us back to an interesting piece by Anthony Esolen in Crisis, which discusses the real nature of the conscience. I refer you to it because the conscience condition above is much tougher than you'd think if you believe conscience to be "the ratiocinative faculty by which we construct 'justifications' for what we wanted to do (or to get out of doing) in the first place." (To tell yourself that conscience is the mere rationalization of desire is itself a rationalization, the perversion of reason against itself.)
The duty to follow conscience ... is a duty to do things or refrain from doing things not because one wants to follow one’s duty but even if one strongly does not want to follow it. The right of conscience is a right to do what one judges oneself to be under obligation to do, whether one welcomes the obligation or must overcome strong aversion to fulfill it. (Robert P. George, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism, cit. in Esolen)