I am reading with fascination, occasional dismay and great interest the various responses to Pope Francis’ letter to Repubblica.
Of course the Mainstream Media has interpreted the remarks to mean atheists go to heaven if they follow their consciences as a kind of cheerful, universalism as have some in traditionalist circles who, I am sorry to say, even admit to praying for a short pontificate and that Francis will either resign or die. Horrible. Way to go to shoot the cause of traditional Catholicism in both kneecaps. And comments sections have run amok on some of these sites. Rorate-Caeli has closed theirs. A good idea as from what I understand the comments section does not reflect the views of the bloggers, just as the commentators here do not reflect my views and most people who comment here are not even eligible to be in the Ordinariate.
Fr. Denis Lemiex, a Madonna House priest, has begun a series on the Pope’s letter at his blog Ten Thousand Places. In part one he writes:
A word about context. Sometimes people act as if the very need to put the Pope’s words into context implies some defect in Pope Francis’ writing style or clarity. This is silly. Context is always necessary. You cannot understand anything—a recipe for scrambled eggs, directions to the mall, an article about corgi dogs or Syria—without having some minimal context to place it in. For example, the statement ‘Jesus is the one savior of the whole world,’ which is our Catholic faith, without context either implies that all non-Christians are going to hell or that everyone goes to heaven willy nilly by the power of Christ. It is only when it is put into the context of our whole Catholic faith, our understanding of God, Jesus, and the human person, that it is rightly understood and heresy avoided. And yet the statement itself is true. Context is always needed, and one of the great challenges of the new evangelization is that the basic context in which we express our Catholic faith is often lacking. We are giving egg scrambling instructions to someone who has never seen an egg, a frying pan, a whisk or a stove.So on to the letter, at least the first bit. The Pope is entering here into a dialogue with a sympathetic non-believer. Really, he is leading by example, showing us how we are to do this necessary task of encounter and dialogue. We must not confine our religious conversation to our little circle who agree with us about everything. We have to go out, as messy and difficult as that conversation may be.-snip-He then goes on to talk about the heart of the matter: that ‘faith is born from the encounter with Jesus. A personal encounter, which has touched my heart and given direction and new meaning to my existence.’ And this encounter occurs withing ‘the community of faith in which I have lived and thanks to which I found access to… Sacred Scripture, to new life that, as gushing water, flows from Jesus through the Sacraments, to fraternity with everyone and at the service of the poor, true image of the Lord. Believe me, without the Church I would not have been able to encounter Christ, also in the awareness that the immense gift that faith is is kept in the fragile earthen vessels of our humanity.’That’s enough for today. It would appear that the Pope is, indeed Catholic. And that his primary concern is to proclaim Jesus Christ to the world, and to lovingly engage the questions and concerns of non-believers in the service of that proclamation. How shocking. How controversial. How terrible. How… apostolic, charitable, evangelical, and really pretty much just like Pope Benedict and John Paul II this Pope Francis of ours is.
Everything he is about to say about atheists and conscience must be read in context of everything he has said about Jesus and his divine authority. It is grossly dishonest to do otherwise.Skipping over his beautiful reflections about the role of Christians in civil society and the Church’s proper concern in relation to this, and the Church’s growing awareness of our Jewish roots and the friendship in the God of Israel this calls us to, and how we understand the current state of the Jewish covenant with God, let’s jump to what has caused such a shocking controversial stir.Asked directly about the attitude of God towards non-believers, here is what he has to say: ‘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. 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.’Now, there’s not a word here about heaven and salvation, I should point out. So the British screaming headlines ‘Pope says to atheists: You go to heaven by following your conscience,’ is objectively inaccurate. We do not go to heaven by following our conscience. I do not go to heaven by being a good little Catholic boy. Let me shout this out to you by putting it in full caps: WE GO TO HEAVEN BY THE LIMITLESS MERCY OF GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!Sorry to shout. But seriously, folks, this is not controversial. It is God’s mercy that saves us, and we receive that mercy by having a sincere and contrite heart. And non-believers can come best to having that sincere and contrite heart by following their consciences. That is what the Pope actually said, and how on earth anyone can find this objectionable or ground-breaking is beyond me. Do we not know our Catholic faith?
Properly understood, following one’s conscience is a path of serious moral reflection and sacrificial generosity. And, as a man of faith, I would say that a non-believer who is seriously following his or her conscience in the real sense of the word has set out on the path of faith already, whether they know it or not, since that voice of conscience within us is an echo of the voice of God, and listened to with sincerity and consistency, will lead us to at least the threshold of faith.
Read both posts in their entirety, please.
Then, in this interesting post at Catholic in the Ozarks, a long one with many references from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Shane Schaetzel writes about an experience he and his wife had while in an RCIA program:
A guest priest was asked to speak on a variety of topics related to Church teaching. This particular priest (who shall remain nameless) had a reputation of being rather crass and difficult to approach interpersonally. However, he did like to lecture, and he was fairly animated at this. So he was invited to speak. During the course of his question and answer segment, somebody asked about the salvation of their Protestant relatives. He responded appropriately by saying they could be saved. That wasn’t a problem. The problem came with what he said after. He went on to talk about how the Catholic Church teaches that anybody and everybody can be saved, so long as they follow their conscience. He used the typical example, of the bushman way out in the wilderness, who has never heard about God. He too can be saved if he just follows his conscience, and that God can reveal himself to different people in different ways. He mentioned Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Atheism. It clearly sounded as if he was saying that it didn’t really matter what you believe, so long as you believe in something.
My wife and I were aghast! What this priest was telling our RCIA class sounded more like Syncretism than Catholicism. My wife, who had been a little sceptical of Catholicism to begin with, immediately whispered into my ear: “That’s it! This is not Christianity. I’m done with this place. I want to leave now!” Now maybe she was right. Maybe a clear way to send a message would have been to simply get up, walk out and drive away, leaving our RCIA directors stunned. After all, we could have gone to another RCIA class at another parish. Or we could have simply gone back to Protestantism for a while. The only problem was, I was convinced the Catholic Church is the one true Church established by Jesus Christ, and I was convinced this priest just didn’t know how to present that plain and clear teaching of that Church. So what to do? In that moment, I decided the best thing to do would be to confront the problem, rather than walk away from it. I whispered back to my wife that she should calm down, because I thought the priest was wrong about something. I told her I would talk to him after the class and that she and I would discuss this later. She grudgingly agreed. So after class I approached the priest, and I asked him to further clarify what he meant earlier. He again explained his teaching, which was identical to what he said before. I responded by asking him the following questions. “How is that any different than Syncretism or religious relativism? So it really doesn’t matter if I convert to Catholicism? I can go to the Unitarian Church down the street and that would be okay, right?” The priest was stunned. He then began to back-peddle a bit, and no sooner another person in our class came over to speak with him. She was a sponsor. She thanked the priest for “clarifying” these matters to us. You see, her aunt had left the Church for Buddhism. She had been trying to get her to come back to the Church for years, but now that the priest had helped her understand that “it doesn’t really matter,” she would leave her Buddhist aunt alone. In fact, she told him she would write her a letter that night and assure her that being a Buddhist is just fine with the Church, and encourage her to go on being a good Buddhist, and that she would get to heaven that way too. She thanked him profusely again, and then walked away. As the stunned and speechless priest turned to look back at me, I said rather smugly: “See what I mean?” His eyes must have been the size of quarters. He then went on to try to back-peddle a bit, and I told him I thought I understood what he was trying to say, but his delivery was a bit off, and that he should be more careful in the future. I then excused myself, explaining that I have to go do some damage control with my wife now.
I want to echo Fr Denis. Context. Context. Context. Coming from the evangelical world where people from different denominations duel using Scripture proof texts to win an argument, I have come into the Catholic Church where people lift a sentence or two from an encyclical to insist they are right.
Just as I have come to understand verses in the Bible need to be read in context with the whole of Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, so do encyclicals, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and so on.
Anyway, the Pope is making a “lio” that’s for sure!
And, if his approach works to draw seekers into the Catholic Church’s embrace, then I support it. It’s the method that worked on me. The people who hit me between the eyes with “There is no salvation outside the Catholic Church” delayed my entry into the Catholic Church. It’s love that drew me in, not doctrine.
The doctrine has since come and I’m thankful for it. I am not being saved by the letter of the faith. Hence, the Pope’s invitation to a personal encounter with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is what worked with me and continues to work with me.