Good Pope Francis made some very ordinary comments on God’s mercyeven towards those who deny his existence… and the secular media went berserk.

1398-491x328In a letter to the editor to La Repubblica, the anticlerical Italian newspaper, Francis wrote:

“Given – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience. There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one’s conscience. Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one’s mind about what is good and evil.”

Earlier, last May, the pope made similar, even more dramatic comments during a sermon:

“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!… 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.”

While there is certainly nothing new or shocking in this, Pope Francis’s comments will almost certainly ignite a new series of furious debates on salvation.

That’s because, for certain types of Christians – both Catholic and Protestant – nothing is more upsetting than the notion that God can welcome into his kingdom people who do not explicitly know or acknowledge him.

In this, they are rather like the figure of the dutiful brother in Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son:  Outraged at the idea that their Father would throw a huge party for skeptics and scoffers, when they, obedient and faithful, spent years doing their duty and playing by the rules.  Jesus apparently knew his followers only too well…

In just the past few years, evangelical Protestantism has been wracked by a series of vitriolic controversies over the issue of salvation for non-believers.

When popular evangelical preacher Rob Bell tentatively explored the possible salvation of all people in his bestselling book Love Wins, it was followed by a flurry of books and articles accusing Bell of heresy and in effect excommunicating him.

Calvinist firebrand John Piper famously tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell,” after Bell’s book hit the shelves… and evangelical preacher Francis Chan penned his own bestselling rebuttal, Erasing Hell, in which he reluctantly summed up Jesus’s message as being:  Believe in me or burn for eternity.      

Of course, Catholics have struggled with this issue for centuries as well – and continue to struggle with it today.

Following Pope Francis’s comments last May, many Catholic theologians were quick to point out that nothing Francis said contradicted traditional Catholic teaching.

With his usual scholastic precision, Fr. Dwight Longenecker pointed out that there is a difference between universal redemption (which Catholics affirm and most Protestants do not) and universal salvation (which Catholics do not affirm).

“Unfortunately for those who wish to paint Pope Francis as a lovable liberal, in fact, the Pope is simply affirming certain truths that any somewhat knowledgeable Catholic will uphold,” Fr. Longenecker wrote.  Christ “redeemed the whole world. However, many will reject that saving work. In affirming the universality of Christ’s redemptive work we are not universalists. To say that he redeemed the whole world is not to conclude that all will be saved.”

Longenecker’s basic point: Redemption means the doors to heaven have been opened. Salvation means walking through them.

Historian Tim Stanley similarly clarified the pope’s recent comments in an article in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper:

“The mainstream media is going wild about a letter that Francis has written about atheists and agnostics, in which he appears to say that belief in God isn’t a requirement to get into Heaven,” Stanley wrote.  “Of course, it absolutely is. If you arrive at the pearly gates and still refuse to accept that God exists then the odds are that St Peter won’t let you in. Everyone has to confront that reality at some point in their lives – so only the mad and the stubborn are likely to spend an eternity as unbelievers.”

Or put another way:  No one will force you into heaven!

But of course, this is a little disingenuous.

The truth is, the historical debate on salvation really has been about whether non-believers have any hope at all of eventual salvation.  It’s been precisely about the possibility of salvation, about redemption in the narrow theological sense.  It’s been about whether living according to your conscience is enough without an explicit faith in God or even in Jesus Christ.

That is the crux of the debate – and, in that sense, Pope Francis has been affirming a more liberal understanding that has been vigorously opposed by many factions in the Christian community over the centuries.

In the 1940s, the Church had to intervene and officially condemn the exclusivist teaching of Fr. Leonard Feeney for propounding a literal interpretation of the dogma, “Outside the Church, No Salvation,” and for insisting on the damnation of all non-Catholics (let alone all non-Christians).

In rejecting Fr. Feeney’s interpretation of this dogma of the Church, the Vatican’s Holy Office (now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) declared that “this dogma is to be understood as the Church itself understands it.”

That understanding, the Holy Office declared, is this:

To gain eternal salvation it is not always required that a person be incorporated in reality (reapse) as a member of the Church, but it is required that he belong to it at least in desire and longing…. When a man is invincibly ignorant, God also accepts an implicit desire, so called because it is contained in the good dispositions of soul by which a man wants his will to be conformed to God’s will.”

This understanding was reiterated and expanded during the Second Vatican Council.  In Lumen Gentium, the Decree on the Church in the Modern World, the Council Fathers forever committed theCatholic Church to a belief in the possible salvation of non-Christians — even, apparently, of non-theists.

Notice how the Council speaks explicitly of salvation, not merely “redemption.”

“Those also can attain to everlasting 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 know to them through the dictates of conscience,” the Fathers declared. “Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to his grace.”

Many evangelicals, and not a few conservative Catholics, believe this teaching of Vatican II represents a dramatic change in official Catholic doctrine — a concession, perhaps, to the liberal theology of Karl Rahner or to an ecumenical movement gone berserk.

They may be surprised to learn, however, that the roots of this teaching are entrenched in magisterial (that is, “official”) Catholic pronouncements, go back through Trent, St. Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics to Justin Martyr  and ultimately to the New Testament itself.

St. Thomas Aquinas comes very close to Karl Rahner’s idea of the anonymous Christian in discussing the “implicit” faith of Cornelius, the Roman centurion who is saved (Acts 10).

Thomas taught that belief in Christ is necessary for salvation, but, because of God’s universal salvific will, God would somehow ensure that all persons had the opportunity to believe.

St. Thomas wrote: “If anyone were brought up in the wilderness or among brute animals, provided that he followed his natural reason in seeking the good and avoiding evil, we must most certainly hold that God would either reveal to him, by an inner inspiration, what must be believed, or would send a preacher to him, as he sent Peter to Cornelius (De Veritate, q. 14, a. 11, ad 1.)” What is more, St. Thomas and later Catholic magisterial teaching would affirm that, while “without baptism there is no salvation for anyone” (Summa III, q. 68, a. 1), that baptism does not have to be the literal sacrament of water. There is a “baptism of repentance” just as there is a “baptism of blood” as well:

This remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments (CCC 1257).”

In his encyclical Quuanto conficiamur moerore, promulgated in 1863, Pope Pius IX simultaneously affirmed the doctrine extra ecclesiam nula sallus (“outside the church, no salvation”) and taught that those “invincibly ignorant” of the Christian religion, but who cooperate with divine grace, can arrive at justification and eternal salvation.

More than 100 years later, Blessed Pope John Paul the Great would make the identical point in his encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio:

“The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to know or accept the Gospel revelation or enter the Church…. For such people, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the church… This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.”

Thus, it is apparent that the teaching that non-Christians can be saved is not an innovation in Roman Catholic theology, the result of radical ideas adopted by the Second Vatican Council or a misplaced ecumenical zeal.

The roots for this teaching lie deep in Catholic tradition and go back all the way to the New Testament.

It took centuries for the Catholic Church to think through the implications of its teaching on grace, freedom and the role of faith in the journey of salvation, but ultimately Catholicism affirmed a quite liberal understanding of how God’s grace works in the world.

It was precisely this understanding that Pope Francis has been restating, in his usual disarming, direct way, over and over again since his election.

By Robert Hutchinson