Understanding what Pope Francis said about atheists, redemption

If you scanned the news headlines May 22, you may have thought Pope Francis radically altered Church teaching. CNN reported, “Heaven for Atheists? Pope Sparks Debate.” Huffington Post claimed, “Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics.”

But what did the pope really say? Did he suggest all atheists are redeemed? And if so, is this a shift in Catholic teaching?

To begin, we must examine the pope’s remarks in context. He was reflecting on Mark 9:38-40, where the disciples complain to Jesus: “We saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus calmly responded, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.”

Pope Francis explained that Jesus’ answer was meant partly to correct the false notion that only religious people can do good. “This [belief] was wrong,” the pope said. “Jesus broadens the horizon … The root of this possibility of doing good — that we all have — is in creation.”

But then he continued:

“[A]ll of us have this commandment at heart: Do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this [person] is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can ... 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! ... 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.”

Redemption, salvation

Most news sites latched on to the claim, “The Lord has redeemed all of us ... Even the atheists.” What should we make of this? First, it offers nothing new and is consistent with what the Church has maintained for nearly 2,000 years, that Christ “indeed died for all” (2 Cor 5:15). The Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms, “Christ died for all men without exception: ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer’” (No. 605).

Pope Francis
Pope Francis passes a crucifix as he leaves his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on May 22. CNS

However, here’s the distinction: Christ’s redemptive sacrifice is not the same thing as salvation. Salvation results from accepting Our Lord’s redemption and applying it to our lives. Catholics know that Christ died for our sins, but that we must receive that gift by trusting in him, accepting his proposal of love, and following him with our life. So while it’s true that Christ redeemed all people, even atheists, it doesn’t follow that all atheists have accepted this gift or will be saved.

An example may help clarify the difference between redemption and salvation. Suppose you destroyed your friend’s car, causing $10,000 in damage. You’re taken to court, and the judge sentences you to five years in prison for the crime. But then I burst in and tell the judge, “My name is Brandon, I’m this man’s friend, and I want to pay his penalty. Whatever it costs to fix the car and make things right, I’ll pay it.” The judge agrees.

Now even though I offer to pay the charge and “redeem” you, you still have a choice. You can either accept my offer and become free, or you can reject my offer and choose to go to jail. The choice is yours.

Christ’s redemption is analogous to me paying off your $10,000 charge (to “redeem” literally means to “buy back” or to “restore”). Catholics know that Christ paid the debt for every person, but that we still must choose whether to accept his act of redemption. We make that choice by how we live our lives and to whom we pay ultimate allegiance: to God or to ourselves.

But what about the last part of that Huffington Post headline? Is it true that all who do good are redeemed? Again, the answer is an emphatic “Yes!” All people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, good and evil alike. Saints, sinners, Peter, Judas, Augustine, Hitler, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and anyone else with a pulse: Jesus died to redeem everyone, without exception. This fact has nothing to do with our goodness and everything to do with God’s overwhelming generosity.

Redemption is universal; salvation is not. Redemption is a proposal we must accept, and salvation is the result. So did God redeem atheists? Yes, and we pray that leads to their salvation.

Brandon Vogt, a Catholic blogger and speaker, runs the website strangenotions.com, a forum dedicated to dialogue between Catholics and atheists.