A year ago, Pope Francis implied that atheists would go to heaven if they only do good. These were his words, “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. And this commandment for everyone to do good …‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”1
Pope Francis’ speech about ‘doing good’ endorses salvation by works, which is consistent with the theology of the Catholic church. So this is not surprising. On the contrary, Protestants (or at least many Protestant denominations) negate ‘salvation by works’ to espouse ‘salvation by grace through faith.’
In his controversial speech, Pope Francis stated that all are beneficiaries of Christ’s redeeming blood. This then is the most disturbing aspect about Pope Francis’ speech - his implication of universalism (that all human beings will find salvation; it does not necessitate belief in God and Jesus Christ.) If his implication of universalism is factual, then it is a false doctrine with reference to the Bible.
Immediately after Pope Francis’ controversial speech, Fr. Thomas Rosica (staff of the Holy See press office) clarified that Christ is the means to all salvation, as if to negate the implication to universalism.2
However, in his statement of clarity, Fr. Rosica refers to Fr. Karl Rahner’s conceptualization of “anonymous Christian” to imply universalism. The anonymous Christian is a non-Christian who ends up in heaven although without consciously realizing himself / herself as a Christian. These are Fr. Rosica’s words, “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’.”3 The concept of “anonymous Christian” is taught in “Lumen Gentium” - the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II (no.16).
Before we go any further, we should affirm the following:
1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (promulgated for the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II in 1992; henceforth denoted as CCC in this essay) deems atheism a sin, “Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion...” CCC 2125 The same message is found in ‘Gaudium Et Spes’ (Pastoral Constitution On The Church In The Modern World) promulgated by his holiness, Pope Paul VI in 1965, “While rejecting atheism, root and branch, the Church sincerely professes that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live…She courteously invites atheists to examine the Gospel of Christ with an open mind.”4
2. The Catholic church affirms the existence of hell, which is reserved for those who continue in mortal sin until their end.CCC 1033-1037
3. The Catholic church does not explicitly endorse universalism. Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a Catholic Priest, author and blogger, emphasizes that universalism does not find a place in Catholic church, “It is a sentimentalist heresy because it is based not on clear thinking or logic or the authority of Church teaching or the catechism or the Sacred Scriptures, for there is no support anywhere for universalism in the Catholic faith” 5 Fr. Rosica affirms the same idea, “Catholics do not adopt the attitude of religious relativism which regards all religions as on the whole equally justifiable…”6
However, the plot thickens here. Avery Cardinal Dulles, who held the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University, endorsed universalism, “Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted…”7
Avery Cardinal Dulles was a very well respected Catholic theologian and was in close association to Pope John Paul II. It was Pope John Paul II who conferred the title of Cardinal of the Catholic Church in Rome upon Avery Dulles in 2001. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave the dying Cardinal Dulles a private audience.8
I make these observations about Cardinal Dulles merely to emphasize his highly respectable standing in Catholicism. Therefore, a man of such high stature in Catholicism would not have ignorantly blurted out his endorsement of universalism. If he had meant what he said, then that could be the official position of the Catholic church as well.
In fact CCC #841 affirms that Muslims and all those from other religions who acknowledge the creator God will go to heaven even if they reject Christ, “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day.” 9
Furthermore, CCC #847 offers anyone who rejects Christ a backdoor entry into heaven under the guise of ‘through no fault of their own’ hypothesis, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.”10
The Bible does not teach salvation for Muslims and other theists, instead the Bible teaches that belief in Christ to be the only means to salvation. On the contrary, CCC #841 confers heaven upon all theists, even if they reject Christ, and CCC #847 and #848 confers heaven upon all atheists.
But the hypothesis ‘no fault of their own’ in CCC #841 bewilders me. Why?
First, it is not biblical. Nowhere does the Bible say that man even if he rejects Christ for no fault of his own will merit eternal life.
Second, the concept that man is following another religion for no fault of his own ascribes innocence upon man. (On the contrary, the Bible deems man a sinner.) In other words, man has not consciously rejected Christ, but is innocently following the religion that he has been born into.
Let’s say that ‘A’ is born into an atheist household. The no fault of his own argument will posit A’s atheism as a consequence of A’s nurture / upbringing – that ‘A’ was brought up in atheism, so ‘A’ subscribes to atheism. The logical alternate of this argument would be, had ‘A’ been brought up in a Catholic household, then ‘A’ would have subscribed to Catholicism. So in this case, ‘A’ will go to heaven because of his circumstances (atheism or Catholicism), which according to the Catholic catechism is for no fault of his own.
The no fault of his own hypothesis includes a couple of invalid presuppositions.
A. This hypothesis removes any semblance of cognition of an alternate worldview. So the hypothesis presumes that the person in contention does not think about alternate worldviews for no fault of his own.
Really? How did Catholic theologians determine this?
B. The no fault of his own hypothesis also rejects a notion of conscious rejection of competing worldviews by the person concerned. By imputing innocence to the person, the hypothesis assumes that the person does not consciously reject competing worldviews, which need not necessarily be true.
Consider Richard Dawkins who rejects God and Christ consciously. To begin with, the no fault of his own argument could include Dawkins under its scope by arguing that Dawkins was not properly informed or educated about God or creation that he subscribed to Darwinian evolution to reject God.
Then just as how an expert neuroscientist would be unable to be an expert in ‘C’ language programming, the no fault of his own argument could potentially argue that Dawkins does not have the expertise to comprehend the truth of the Christian faith, and hence for no fault of his own subscribes to the lie of atheism to reject Christ.
This so deviously entails that Dawkins has not rejected Christ consciously. It’s just that Dawkins is unable to comprehend the truth for no fault of his own.
Thus the no fault of his own hypothesis has the surreptitious potency albeit sans sense and sagacity to confer heaven upon all and sundry.
The third and the most important argument, as I see it, against the no fault of his own hypothesis is this. The concept that man follows another religion for no fault of his own ascribes inactivity upon God.
If man is said to be following a lie for no fault of his own then the insinuation is that God has not done anything significant to teach man or to bring man into truth-consciousness. This is the most troublesome aspect of this Catholic doctrine.
But God does intervene in people’s lives. The Bible is replete with such instances; a vividly remembered case in point would be Christ’s supernatural appearance to the church persecutor Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9: 1-18) or the promise that Christ would be with us until the very end of the age (Matthew 28: 20).
Therefore to say that man remains in a lie for no fault of his own questions God’s immanence and relegates HIM to a mere spectator. Relegating God to a spectatorial dungeon is a false accusation and a sin against a sovereign and a just God.
Significantly, St. Augustine (354 - 430 AD) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 AD) arguably two most important Catholic theologians did not subscribe to universalism. The contemporary Catholic conception of universalism commenced in 16th and 17th centuries11 and since then continues to gradually capture the Catholic minds.
The no fault of his own doctrine of the Catholic church motivates those subscribing to contradictory worldviews to remain in their belief. Why would an atheist or a Muslim want to know the truth if he is taught that he will go to heaven even according to the Catholic understanding? Why would Catholics even want to evangelize, for anybody could be wherever they are for they are there for no fault of their own, and for which they will enter heaven?
Importantly, the Catholic conception of universalism mocks sin and Christ’s gory death on the cross. Why would anyone want to renounce their sinful life if all they need to do is good works while they continue to enjoy their sinful deeds? Why would Christ have to undergo that extremely painful death while HE could have sovereignly willed everyone into heaven without the pain of the cross?
What about the Catholic affirmation of hell and their consideration of atheism as sin? It seems that the Catholic church does not take them seriously anymore.
I conclude with the words of Fr. Dwight Longenecker, “The effects of universalism on the church are catastrophic. It's not real hard to understand. People aren't dumb. If everyone is going to be saved, then why bother to go to church? If everyone is going to be saved there is no such thing as mortal sin. If everyone is going to be saved there is no need for evangelism. If everyone is going to be saved there is no need to feed the hungry, become a priest, build the church and become a saint.
Of all the various Hydra heads of modernism, universalism is probably the most insidious and diabolical and destructive of them all. It is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It's sweetness and light and sentimentality and underneath it's poison.”12
Jesus Christ said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6, NIV). This is the truth, all else is a lie. Amen.
CCC2125: Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion. The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. "Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion." (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c1a1.htm)
1033We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."
1034 Jesus often speaks of "Gehenna" of "the unquenchable fire" reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire," and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!"
1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
1036 The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few."
Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where "men will weep and gnash their teeth."
1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want "any to perish, but all to come to repentance":
Father, accept this offering
from your whole family.
Grant us your peace in this life,
save us from final damnation,
and count us among those you have chosen.