By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Funny thing. You can learn a lot about politics listening to religious leaders — especially the one’s who’ve suffered a precipitous decline in prestige and influence by marching out of step with the mainstream. In words as surprising as his election to the Throne of St. Peter, Pope Benedict has issued a game changer. Atheists can get into Heaven, too. Pope Francis is in the habit of saying daily Mass for the people at St. Martha’s House with invited guests, and when he does so he gives an off-the-cuff homily. Here’s his dialog with an imaginary questioner:
“‘But, Father, this [person] is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. . . .
“Instead,” the Pope continued, “the Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in the depths of our heart: do good and do not do evil”:
“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! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good.”
“‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
Wow! No club membership! No dues! The key to Heaven found in good works alone regardless of belief. This Pope is rubbing the Curia against its collective grain and positioning a church with declining influence into an outreach dynamo. The move ruffled feathers at the Vatican, of course. The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who are aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.” But Rosica had to offer due deference to the words of the leader of 1.2 billion souls, adding, “every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”
Bummer. Thanks for adding fallibility to that infallibility thingie. Then, of course, the National Catholic Register chimed in to parse every word to prove that, “Nope, the Pope wasn’t talking about Heaven. Just Peace.”
These naysayers notwithstanding, the cat was out of the bag. In short order, this Pope from South America is proving to be something special. First, a defense of Liberation Theology we discussed a couple of weeks ago (here). Then, a blue ribbon panel to implement church reform and a first ever call to root out and punish child abusing priests. Now, he’s plowing new ecumenical ground despite what those Hogwarts in Rome think. Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said that he welcomed the Pontiff’s comments. “I gather from this statement that his view of the world’s religious and philosophical diversity is expanding,” Speckhardt said. “While humanists have been saying for years that one can be good without a god, hearing this from the leader of the Catholic Church is quite heartening. If other religious leaders join him, it could do much to reduce the automatic distrust and discrimination that atheists, humanists, and other nontheists so regularly face. ” Amen to that.
In an age of fundamentalism, the successor to St. Peter is reaching out to the world — even to non believers. And running roughshod over those power brokers in the Vatican to do it. Talking about shaking the pillars of the church. Long overdue in a church more known for scandal than saving souls. It seems this Pope understands demographics and people. That’s an irresistible combination. Might even get me back into the aisles.
Now if the Republicans in the US could get the message.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger