Pope Francis has garnered quite a bit of attention for his comments last Wednesday regarding atheists and his claim that everyone is redeemed by the blood of Christ. He said, in part:
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!
Many seem to think that the Pope was expressing some sort of universalism: that everyone, regardless of their beliefs about God, will eventually be saved. But reading his statements in the wider context of his homily shows that isn’t what he was saying:
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.(from Vatican Radio)
The Pope is essentially expressing the Protestant idea of Common Grace: that all people feel God’s love, enjoy his providence, benefit from his restraint of evil and are endowed with a God-given moral conscience.
Common grace is summed up nicely in Romans 2.14−15:
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.
But doesn’t the Pope say that we are all redeemed? Yes, but in Catholic theology, redemption doesn’t directly equate with salvation. Redemption is: “The restoration of man from the bondage of sin to the liberty of the children of God through the satisfactions and merits of Christ.” That is, Christ’s death frees humanity from sin and gives us the freedom to come to God … but it is still up to the individual to exercise that freedom and follow God. From a Catholic perspective, everyone is redeemed, but a person can individually choose to reject God’s grace and therefore not receive salvation.
So, while I think the Pope offers a wonderful message about how people of all faiths and backgrounds should work together toward a common good, it is far too hopeful an interpretation to say that he’s stepping beyond orthodox Catholic theology.