No, the Pope Didn't Say You Don't Have to Believe in God - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
No, the Pope Didn’t Say You Don’t Have to Believe in God

Once again Pope Francis has made headlines, this time for his supposedly radical op-ed comments on the possible salvation of non-believers. The stunning revelation: Non-believers can be saved if they act according to their consciences.

There is nothing radical or new about his words in terms of Church teaching. There’s also nothing new about how the media is sensationalizing his words to make them compatible with or approving of any worldview. 

Since being elected, many of Pope Francis’s public statements on contentious topics have been construed as indicators of “change” within the church. A CNN blog piece from July 2013, reporting on Francis’s views on homosexuality, said that the pope’s words “indicated a change in tone, if not in teaching, in the church’s stance towards gays and lesbians more generally.” Championing Pope Francis as the great “modifier” or “tailor” of Church teaching on modern social issues is misguided, but many news services have fallen into this trap.  

These misguided hopes explain why a headline such as “Pope Assures Atheists: You Don’t Have to Believe in God to Go to Heaven” can create a media firestorm.  

The title is altogether misleading. To many it reads more like: “Everyone goes to Heaven regardless of what you believe,” when that is the opposite meaning of the message entirely:

You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.

Francis recognizes a two-pronged question concerning those who don’t believe and don’t seek, but, tellingly, he probes the latter prong first. He begins by saying that seeking is the fundamental thing. If you are a sincere seeker of the truth and your sure conscience paves you a path, then you must follow it. Nothing radical there.

The caveat, however, is that no one follows his conscience perfectly, theist or atheist, but in both instances what’s offered is the same: a possibility of salvation, not a guarantee. Hence, there is a need for a search.

Once Francis establishes that necessity, “peaceful and constructive dialogue,” as he put it in his op-ed, is of capital importance. 

To avoid dialogue—to turn on autopilot—then, is to cease seeking the truth in a real way. Hence, what seeking the truth requires, inevitably and invariably, is dialogue with other human beings. Why Francis is perceived to be a groundbreaker in this regard isn’t clear. 

In 2005, Zenit reported that Pope Benedict, when commenting on St. Augustine at a papal audience, said that “whoever seeks peace and the good of the community with a pure conscience, and keeps alive the desire for the transcendent, will be saved even if he lacks biblical faith.” How Benedict’s invocation of a 4th-century saint—on the same topics of “pure conscience” and seeking the transcendent and the possibility of being saved without faith—can be passed as a 21st-century breath of fresh air is puzzling.

Even in 1994, Pope John Paul II stated quite clearly, in his address to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, that “[i]t would be appropriate to seek [non-belief’s] historical, cultural, social and intellectual causes, and at the same time to promote a respectful and open dialogue with those who do not believe in God or who profess no religion.” The same notions of “seek” and “dialogue,” in the context of non-belief, were promulgated 19 years ago, before both Francis and Benedict.

What is currently being treated in many circles as a novel and welcome advance by the Catholic Church—through Francis—into the 21st century, is nothing more than a simple moral point, consistent with the thinking of both the pope’s predecessors and good old-fashioned common sense.

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