Pope Francis’ comments about ‘even the atheists’ being redeemed fueled stories in the media that displayed a confusion among Catholic respondents. Even the Vatican issued a clarification that seemed to correct the pope. It raised for me a more fundamental question about why non-theists or non-Catholics being redeemed upsets the more religious among us.
I often tell friends who love to disprove atheism as a hobby it is not disbelief that threatens our Church, it is apathetic belief. For this reason, I shy away from encountering atheism in my thought. Their conscience decision to engage spirituality in such a way is largely more experiential than intellectual, and you cannot argue experience. The pope’s comments are not a challenge to atheism though, but progress in dialogue with those who differ in belief – and, perhaps more telling, a conversation starter for necessary dialogue with Catholics ourselves.
If an atheist is redeemed why should this bother the believer?
If the theist’s beliefs are objectively true, then nothing they posit in this life will affect their redemption because it is of divine origin. If the atheists beliefs are objectively true, and there is no God, then this whole discussion of Christian redemption is futile.
Except for worthiness, which is the sole reason why Catholics have been objecting to the pope’s words (and they have in droves). Faith becomes a calculus of inputs and outputs, thus being Catholic and doing all the right things is the input to attain the output of redemption. Why would anyone who does not put in the time and work gain the reward? It would seem to lessen the redemption of those of us who labored; in other words those who are “worthy.”
In this mindset then, Pope Francis admitting the reality that ‘even atheists’ are included in Christ’s redemption can be jarring – or liberating if worthiness is something you hope the Church will soon jettison.
Inclusion in salvation, present to God’s overwhelming love should be a goal we desire for every person. The Catholic mind is communally-oriented and our conception of salvation cannot escape this nor can we cast communion with every human being aside. Atheists’ redemption is included in this universal nature of redemption, and we need to overcome inflated piety or over concern with worthiness for a shift in thinking to occur.
The Church, which is all of us as the People of God, needs to shift our thinking and ask, Why are we not overjoyed when all are redeemed? Why do we fail to express unconditioned joy at the thought any person would gain salvation? Is that not the entire point of evangelizing and bringing others into a relationship with Christ – so, even if this occurs post-mortem, is it not still the final end we would celebrate?
God’s all powerful ability to welcome any and all into the Kingdom of God cannot be limited by our human conceptions of worthiness, so rather than worry we must release false aspects of our faith. We must release the idea that our worship, service, or devotion contributes to more worth in God’s eyes. We must release the idea that those who worship in other traditions or participate in no tradition, or even adamantly defame God, are some how unable to participate among God’s love in an eternal sense. Beyond just acknowledging our work does not ‘earn’ salvation, we need to practice this in our lives – doing good, but not pretending it increases our worth before God.
Our worth is already maxed out.
God loves us, every single person in their uniqueness, without failure. To speak of equal love for all does not diminish God’s love for each one, but in typical both/and fashion we live this tension. Worthiness needs expulsion from our consciousness, and a leveling in our minds of all humanity before God. Pope Francis simply stated the long-held belief that Christ’s paschal mystery redeems all – it should not have rattled the world so much, and yet mired in our false beliefs it did. Let’s move on.