I am coming late to the party, discussing Pope Francis’ May 22nd homily, the eternal fate of atheists, and the flurry of internet chatter associated with both of those previous two items, but hey, I guess the saying, “Better late than never,” could be applied. What prompted me to finally chime in was the Digital Journal article, entitled: Vatican: Whatever Pope Francis meant, atheists still burn in hell.
Here is the opening paragraph of the article:
After Pope Francis told the world that even atheists are redeemed, Vatican spokesman Thomas Rosica has issued a statement that the pope’s words do not mean atheists are saved. They are still going to hell if they do not “enter” the Catholic Church.
This article has almost 10 hyperlinks in it, but none to Fr. Rosica’s statement. Why is that? It seems important. It seems even more important since there are a number of headlines today, including the one from Digital Journal, that say Fr. Rosica clarified the pope’s statements by saying atheists are still going to hell.
Is that really what Fr. Rosica said? The flurry articles and blog posts on this subject (i.e. Rosica’s correction of the pope’s theology) yesterday and today, many of which began with, “The Vatican has just announced that…”, lead one to believe that Rosica’s remarks were released in the past 24 hours. The Vatican spokesman actually wrote his remarks the day after the pope’s homily (i.e. May 23rd), five days ago.
Despite the time delay, here are some headlines that have cropped up in the past 24 hours:
- Atheists Still Going To Hell, Vatican Assures Catholics (Published yesterday)
- Atheists Are Still Going to Hell, Says Vatican Spokesman (Published yesterday)
- Catholic Church confirms atheists still go to hell, after Pope Francis suggests they might go to heaven (Published today)
- Vatican corrects infallible pope: atheists will still burn in hell (Published today)
Here is what a thoughtful person should do (it’s what I did). I used Ctrl-F on my keyboard and searched for the word “hell” in Rosica’s lengthy statement (after I searched for it on the web). Would you like to know the number of occurrences of the word, “hell” I found? One. And no, that one occurrence does not say: “All atheists will go to hell.” It reads as follows:
The great German Jesuit theolgian, Fr. Karl Rahner introduced the idea of “anonymous Christian” into theological reflection. Through this concept, offered to Christians, Rahner said that God desires all people to be saved, and cannot possibly consign all non-Christians to hell. Secondly, Jesus Christ is God’s only means of salvation. This must mean that the non-Christians who end up in heaven must have received the grace of Christ without their realising it. Hence the term – ‘anonymous Christian’.
So what the readers of all those articles claiming that a “Vatican spokesman said atheists are still going to hell” is contact those authors/editors and tell them they are all full of garbage and they need to do two minutes worth of homework instead of merely sensationalizing sensitive issues.
Here is probably the most troublesome idea from this, and similar, articles (my emphasis added):
In a quick move to disabuse the minds of the ungodly majority who may have heaved a sigh of relief after learning that the pope has said the closed doors of heaven have at last been flung open to non-Catholics and atheists (!), Rosica implied that the pope did not mean to say that atheists could go to heaven if they do good but do not become Catholics. According to CNN, in an “explanatory note on the meaning of salvation” issued on Thursday, Rosica made it clear that people cannot be saved if they are aware of the Catholic Church but “refuse to enter her or remain in her.” That is, atheists are going to hell if they do not become Catholics.
Text in the final two lines of the above quote seem to be the crux of the whole issue. I want to look at them one at a time.
…Rosica made it clear that people cannot be saved if they are aware of the Catholic Church but “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”
Rosica took this language from the Vatican II Constitution, Lumen Gentium, paragraph #14:
Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved (LG #14).
So far, so good. If you are a Catholic who wants to keep atheists out of heaven, then you may be feeling pretty good right now. If you are atheist looking for another reason to tell all the self-righteous papists of the world to take a flying leap, this seems like a pretty good reason. But have we successfully arrived at the conclusion the author reached in the final sentence of the above quoted paragraph?
That is, atheists are going to hell if they do not become Catholics.
I will concede that one could reach that conclusion if they stopped reading/researching at this point. That is exactly what every religion writer/blogger, especially those not keen on Catholicism, seems to have done (at least all the ones I read). But only a few paragraphs further in Rosica’s clarification we see just how nuanced Catholic theology can be (my emphasis added):
A non-Christian may reject a Christian’s presentation of the gospel of Christ. That however, does not necessarily mean that the person has truly rejected Christ and God. Rejection of Christianity may not mean the rejection of Christ. For if a given individual rejects the Christianity brought to him through the Church’s preaching, even then we are still never in any position to decide whether this rejection as it exists in the concrete signifies a grave fault or an act of faithfulness to one’s own conscience. We can never say with ultimate certainty whether a non-Christian who has rejected Christianity and who, in spite of a certain encounter with Christianity, does not become a Christian, is still following the temporary path mapped out for his own salvation which is leading him to an encounter with God, or whether he has now entered upon the way of perdition.
What we actually see at this point in Rosica’s explanation is a seismic shift from the onus being on unbelievers to enter and remain in the Church, to people inside the Church doing a better job at witnessing the Gospel. The Vatican spokesman is saying that if a person is presented the gospel poorly, and because of that elects not to become a member of Christ’s Church, then the Church is still not in a position to say what that person’s eternal destination is (i.e. “We can never say with ultimate certainty…). That is a significantly different conclusion then the one Didymus, and most religion writers/bloggers, arrived at:
While the Catholic Church may have restated uncompromisingly its position on the ultimate fate of atheists, not many think that atheists are worrying about it.
Once again Christianity, the Catholic Church, and theology are victim to shoddy reporting by people covering the “religion beat.” Heck, even atheists are not represented very well, even by people who support their position.
Let’s just lay this thing to rest. The idea of the Church pronouncing ultimate judgement (heaven or hell) on non-believers is rubbish, pure and simple.
And while we are on the subject, the Church actually has harsher words for lukewarm Catholics (a.k.a. “cafeteria Catholics) then it does atheists (my emphasis added):
The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged (LG 14).