The Catholic Universalist

Pope Francis is a Universalist! At least that is what some people are going to want to say once they read the statements on atheism that he made during his homily at Wednesday Mass on 5/22/13.

It has been reported that Francis made some incendiary comments on Wednesday that has infuriated many Catholics and has reminded protestants of why they left the Catholic church hundreds of years ago. Francis was preaching from the Gospel of Mark, a pericope where some of Jesus’ disciples were angry that someone who was outside of their group was doing God. Here is what Francis says

“They complain… if he is not one of us, he cannot do good. And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him, let him do good.”

Francis explains that the disciples were “a little intolerant…convinced that those who do not have the truth, cannot do good…this was wrong…Jesus broadens the horizon. The root possibility of doing good — that we all have — is in creation.”

He goes on to say that:

 “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this 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.”

The media was quick to respond to these comments by saying that “Atheists should be seen as good people if they do good.” And that “Francis reaching out to atheists and people who belong to no religion is a marked contrast to the attitude of former Pope Benedict.” Some media outlets have even said that Francis says “Atheists who do good are saved” and “Atheists who do good go to heaven.”

Let me put my cards out on the table. I am a Francis Fan. Even though I am protestant, evangelical, charismatic, and reformed. And I also believe in the principle of Christian and Academic Charity. Also, in these statements seem to represent a huge break in Francis’ former attitudes towards atheists. So lets stop and think about these statements for a second.

Question: Does Francis believe that Atheists are inherently good?
Answer: No

Nowhere does Francis say that Atheists are good. Notice carefully what he does say. “The root possibility of doing good – that we all have is in creation.” He does not say “the possibility of being good. He says “the possibility of doing good.” This is completely uncontroversial. Many within the Reformed tradition, including Kuyper (and others who follow the Dutch Calivinst tradition) have affirmed the doctrine of common grace. We are not utterly depraved. We are totally depraved. This means that sin infects (or affects) all that we do, even the “good” things. So nowhere is Francis denying the doctrine of original sin.

Question: Does Francis believe that Atheists can be saved by their good works?
Answer: No

As a Catholic Francis does believe that humans are saved by works. But with one HUGE caveat. Humans are saved through meritorious works. Works are only meritorious if they are performed in Christ, by means of grace. As a protestant I disagree with this. I believe that we are saved through the work of Christ alone and that our works are evidence of the fact that we are in Christ. Nevertheless the Catholic stands firm in asserting that salvation is not earned by our own efforts. God’s grace empowers us to do the works that are salvific. By definition atheists are not in Christ, yes they can do good works, but no these works are not meritorious, therefore they are not salvific. Atheists will not be saved. Atheists won’t be in heaven… that is unless they repent and put their faith in Christ. This is not an issue over grace versus redemption through works. This is not per-reformation Catholicism creeping in.

Question: Does Francis believe that Atheists are redeemed by the blood of Christ?
Answer: Yes

Francis does believe that atheists are redeemed by the blood of Christ. He probably believes that murders, Buddhists, Muslims, adulterers, gluttons, financial crooks, and liars are redeemed by the blood of Christ. What else would these people be redeemed by? I understand that this is probably the most controversial part of his statement. But note… he is not saying he believes in universal salvation! He simply asserts that he believes in universal redemption. Even more specifically it seems as though he is asserting the doctrine of unlimited atonement. He highlights the fact that Christ died for all… not just the elect. Some Reformed people will balk at this (5 Pointers) others will see it as not being an issue (4 Pointers). Regardless, Francis surely is not a Catholic universalist.

Question: So what is Francis Saying?
Answer: Work together for the common good.

Its important to remember that this homily was given in light of what happened in Oklahoma, the terrible tornadoes. He is simply saying that as Christians we must not be afraid to work together with non-Christians (even atheists) for the sake of the common good. In light of the tornadoes in Oklahoma this means that Christian relief organizations can come alongside of non-Christian organizations in order to serve the community through good works. This means that Christians can even serve in non-Christian organizations to do good for the community. This is no different than what certain strands of Reformed theology have always asserted, namely that people must work together for the common good because that is a part of how God’s common grace is manifested.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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