Pope Francis’ letter to atheists, published last week by Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, has been cheered by Catholics who welcomed another sign of the pontiff’s new openness to the world beyond the Vatican walls. But it has also prompted concern.
- Religion News Service/National Catholic Reporter
They are reacting to headlines about the pope’s letter, like this one in the British newspaper The Independent: "Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven.” As David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network tweeted: “Say what? Catholics please explain this ... Evangelicals are NOT kosher with this...”
First off, Brody and others shouldn’t be deceived by a headline. The pope’s letter itself makes clear that he is talking about forgiveness (and dialogue) more than salvation -- and that’s hardly so controversial.
As Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the London-based Catholic journal The Tablet, said in that same story: “Francis is still a conservative ... But what this is all about is him seeking to have a more meaningful dialogue with the world.” That sort of open-handed approach toward nonbelievers and others has been characteristic of this pope since the first days after he took office in March, as he greeted the media and made a special point of respecting the consciences of non-Catholics and those who have no religious belief.
Another point: The debate over who will be saved and who will not is and will remain a lively one in the Catholic church, but it is not that new, relatively speaking. As the late Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote, the main break came in the middle of the 20th century, when some theologians -- and the church -- started downplaying the age-old anathema “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” -- that “there is no salvation outside the church,” meaning the church of Rome.
Since then, Catholic thinkers have been trying to come up with new formulas to give people a sense of who will be saved, and who will not.