As unreliable as the MSM is in reporting on matters religious, religious bloggers and non-mainstream news outlets are almost as bad at reporting on what the MSM says about religion. Has anyone actually read an article or post which declares, without any weasel words or equivocal phrasing, “Pope Francis said Thursday that atheists can go to heaven by doing good works”? If you know where such posts can be found, please send me the links and I’ll post them here.
Of course, that’s not what the Pope said, as Jimmy Akin takes some time to explain. Pace Terry Mattingly, HuffPo’s headline (“Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed By Jesus As Well As Catholics, Pope Francis Says”) is only as dramatic as the fact is — all mankind has been redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice. If there’s any problem with the anonymous author’s piece, it’s that s/he confuses redemption with justification: “…the Pope’s words may spark memories of the deep divisions from the Protestant reformation over the belief in redemption through grace versus redemption through works” [bold font mine.—TL].
Why would such an assertion be controversial? In strict justice, atheists can’t be wholly blamed for getting Christian concepts mixed up. For one thing, Catholic catechesis and religious formation have degraded considerably since 1965; for another, common Christian consensus understanding of such basic concepts has also fallen apart, as a natural consequence of sola scriptura and the rejection of human religious authority. If we don’t get these things right, how do we convince the non-believer?
The assertion is only controversial if we believe that redemption is a guarantee of heaven — that, because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, you don’t really need to do anything other than be “good enough” to go to heaven. This is the error that needs correction. So what is redemption?
When God created us, He ordered our beings towards good, towards obedience to Him through doing good. However, He also created us with free will, so that our love and obedience would be given of our own accord and not as a material effect of a supernatural Cause.
The first sin, original sin, was born of a wrongful exercise of free will, and produced within succeeding generations a predisposition to sin by separating our first parents from their supernatural state of original justice. Each sin after that compounds the original separation and creates further attachment to evil. The stain of original sin, the predisposition, also creates within us a tendency to distort our perceptions of good and evil, leading us to treat objectively evil acts as positively beneficial and necessary, even “to do evil so that good may come of it” (Rom 3:8).
Of course, to say that sin created and compounds our separation from original justice is to say that it also separates us from friendship with God, from the divine adoption by which we are known as children of God:
The charter of our adoption is properly recorded by St. Paul (Romans 8; Ephesians 1; Galatians 4); St. John (Prologue and First Epistle 1:3); St. Peter (First Epistle 1); and St. James (Epistle 1). According to these several passages we are begotten, born of God. He is our Father, but in such wise that we may call ourselves, and truly are, His children, the members of His family, brothers of Jesus Christ with whom we partake of the Divine Nature and claim a share in the heavenly heritage (Sollier, Supernatural Adoption, 1911).
Redemption, then, restores the divine filiation and friendship with God through a perfect sacrificial act of atonement done on our behalf by Christ (CCC 613-614). Moreover, this perfect vicarious atonement is not done only for the sake of a select few: “There is not, never has been, and never will be a human being for whom Christ did not suffer” (CCC 605; cit. D 319).
So why doesn’t this automatically translate into heaven for the atheist who does good?
- Professing faith in Christ does not give one an automatic ticket to heaven. Jesus makes it clear and certain that salvation depends on “walking the talk”: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers’” (Mt 7:21-23; cf. Mt 25:31-46, Rom 2:5-8, 1 Cor 6:9-10, Heb 10:26-27).
- The human conscience is imperfect. Even the Christian conscience can be imperfectly formed (CCC 1790-1792); this fact is testified to by all the sins committed by Christians, especially those committed in the name of the Church. “Of course, I mean that Catholicism was not tried; plenty of Catholics were tried, and found guilty. … [T]he great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” (Chesterton, 1910)
- Atheism, as we commonly encounter it in the West, entails the knowing and intentional rejection of traditional Christian morality, at least in part. It’s a mistake to believe that, because one is primarily responsible to his own conscience (CCC 1782), he’s therefore free to re-write the moral laws of the universe according to his perception. Some rules always apply (CCC 1789); and there are some acts that remain objectively evil regardless of intent (CCC 1755-1756).
- By its very nature, conscious atheism rejects the economy of salvation. The question of atheists entering heaven presumes, at least for the sake of argument, that Christian cosmology is true. But if it’s true, then the atheist has rejected friendship with and adoption by God — there is no God to be reconciled with, no debt-bond of sin to be satisfied by any redemptive act and therefore no redemption to be had.
In John Thavis’ blog, atheist “Jeff” writes, “I don’t understand the misconception that some people have that you have the [sic] believe in a deity to do good. As an atheist, I can tell you this is simply not true. I do regular charity work, and do as much as I can to help my fellow man. Religion does not have a monopoly on morality.”
This misses the point. No Christian apologist, minister or theologian I’m aware of has ever seriously contended that atheists can’t do good. The economy of salvation, however, addresses the fact that people do evil as well. They do evil accidentally; they do it intentionally; they do it compulsively. It is our attachment to sin that holds us short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23); by contrast, doing good earns no metaphysical brownie points, for “we have only done what was our duty” (Lk 17:7-10).
There's a lot more that goes into salvation. But at the very least, it’s not merely enough to do good; we must avoid doing evil, as well. By rejecting God and the Christian economy of salvation, the intentional atheist sets himself at a disadvantage. The question, then, is not whether he can achieve Heaven without faith, but whether he can avoid permanent, everlasting separation from God … also known as Hell.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. (1997). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, Inc., Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Chesterton, G. K. (1910). What's Wrong with the World. Retrieved May 27, 2013, from Wikisource: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/What%27s_Wrong_with_the_World
Denziger, H. (1957). Sources of Catholic Dogma. Retrieved May 23, 2013, from Catechetics Online: http://www.catecheticsonline.com/SourcesofDogma.php
Ott, L. (1960). Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. (J. C. Bastible, Ed., & P. Lynch, Trans.) Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books and Publishers.
Sollier, J. (1911). Redemption. Retrieved May 27, 2013, from The Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12677d.htm
Sollier, J. (1911). Supernatural Adoption. Retrieved May 27, 2013, from The Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01148a.htm