Not So Much
This is just a quick response to the latest media misrepresentation of Pope Francis by the Independent: Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven! Whether one agrees with Catholcism or not, misrepresentation is not OK, and misquotes and misunderstandings of Pope Francis have reached such regularity they are hardly even worth answering anymore (although they do give the satirical The Turnip: The Roman Improvement on the Onion much fodder). Until one has read what he actually said (not just a one-sentence quote), and understood it in the context of Catholic dogma and vocabulary, it is easy to mistake what he means for what the media would like him to mean! Here is the translation of the letter sent by Pope Francis in response to several questions made by him in various articles.
Here is my exegesis of his response.
The Pope sets up his response with statements like these: “Each one of us is called to make his own the look and the choice of love of Jesus, to enter into his way of being, of thinking and acting. This is the faih.” OK, so we all have to make our own choice to follow Christ. No problem there. He then says, “The Church is called to sow the leaven and the salt of the Gospel, and this is the love and mercy of God that reaches all men, pointing out the celestial and definitive goal of our destiny.” OK, so the love and mercy of God reaches all men because the gospel (*not salvation*) reaches all men. No problem there either.
Then comes big question:
“You ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn’t believe and doesn’t seek the faith.”
The Pope’s Actual Response
The Pope answers that, “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.” This is a conditional statement which can be condensed to: “The God of Christians forgives one who turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart.”
The Pope does not state the obvious implication – but that does not make it any less obvious. Atheists do not turn to God because they cannot do so while remaining atheists! The statement of conscience reflects standard Catholic anthropology: Because we are humans, God respects our choices – even considering it sin to go against one’s conscience. His response, in other words, is that the atheist has to follow his conscience. If his conscience does not lead him to turn to God with a sincere and contrite heart, then God’s mercy should ont be expected to be applied to him in a salvific way. This conclusion, unlike the media’s twisted interpretation, is perfectly in line with everything Francis said and with Catholic theology:
“But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention. . . . Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. 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. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.” - Lumen Gentium (emphasis mine)
My Two Cents
I think it was a wise response both politically and religiously. If someone asked me if atheists could go to heaven, and I knew the whole world was waiting for me to say something offensive to strengthen their attitude against the Church, I would have given a positive spin too: “Atheists can go to heaven if they turn to God.” Everyone is unsaved until they are saved, so simply saying that the unsaved are unsaved is not as helpful as presenting the solution and the problem in one statement.
Can Atheists (or Muslims or Pagans or Satanists) go to heaven? No, not as Atheists (or Muslims or Pagans or Satanists). But this equates to:
“Can the unsaved be saved?” Yes, by becoming saved!