On Wednesday, Pope Francis addressed people from all walks of life by claiming that anyone who does ‘good’ will go to heaven, even atheists. Pope Francis has been the first in many aspects of his papacy: first Pope from the Americas, first Jesuit Pope, and first to use Francis as a regnal name. However, he is not among the first to take a more universalist approach. Pope John XXIII began the Second Vatican Council in 1962, stating he wanted to “throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” That council went on to be more accepting of others, but their acceptance focused primarily on other types of Christ-based religions. Many Christians, from Origen in the third century to Madeleine L’Engle in the twenty first century, have argued for a universal acceptance to heaven, but never has a Pope so concretely stated that morality, not faith, is the way to heaven. With such a broad change from the denominationally strict tendencies of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, what does Pope Francis’ Wednesday morning mass mean for nonbelievers?
Pope Francis alluded to the Gospel of Mark during his mass, telling a story of Jesus’ disciples seeing another man do good and complaining that “if he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not our party, he cannot do good.” The Pope explained that Jesus tells his disciples not to “hinder him” and they should “let him do good.” It appears that the Pope is paralleling the story found on Mark 9:39-40. This book was likely the first of the four canonical gospels, having been written around 60 C.E. It provides the early groundwork for what modern Christians believe, such as being the only gospel to refer to Jesus as a carpenter. With such significance, shouldn’t Mark’s universalist undertones have come to light sooner? Additionally, Mark isn’t the only one arguing for acceptance: “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). With all of these apparent allusions, why is Pope Francis the first to openly accept all people? There is a simple answer: the Bible is unreliable.
In the New Testament, Paul explains the importance of faith, not good deeds, to the Ephesians: “for by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Gospel of John, one of the four canonical gospels, explicitly says “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to Father, but through Me.’” (14:6). The reason that Pope Francis is the first to argue for a universal acceptance to heaven through good deeds is because he specifically looked for a section of the New Testament that would defend his claims. With so many contradictory tales in the Bible, stories can be chosen or ignored depending on the lecturer’s intended message. Just a few sections before the story of Jesus accepting everyone who is “not against us”, it is revealed that the man so despised by the disciples isn’t performing ‘good’ in general, but actually driving out demons (Mark 9:38; Luke 9:49). Clearly this wouldn’t apply to most people, especially the atheist subjects of Pope Francis’ mass, so he skipped over that part to focus on what he found important.
Questions of ‘true’ biblical meaning and individual interpretation aside, the bigger question of ‘why’ still shadows over the seemingly positive step for Catholicism: why does Pope Francis intend to include more people to the already one billion Catholics worldwide? With a diluted version of Christianity where a person no longer needs to accept Jesus Christ to go to heaven, literally everyone who is ‘good’ becomes eligible for salvation. Through his words, Pope Francis apparently deems everyone ‘Christian’ if they manage to live a good life. This seems to insinuate that the head of Catholicism is intentionally loosening the meaning of being a Christian, but it isn’t clear what his goal is in doing so. Does Pope Francis intend to allow Catholicism to lose its meaning, potentially beginning a fall of organized religion from the inside? This seems unlikely. Perhaps, then, Pope Francis is hoping to broaden the definition of Christianity in order to widen his grasp, and thus Catholic influence, worldwide. Only time will tell.
No matter his intention, Pope Francis’ mass remains odd. Even if he intended to be accepting because he genuinely believes that everyone should go to heaven, the Pope is still missing a major part of the topic: atheists don’t believe in heaven. The Gospel of Mark, his primary source in arguing for universal acceptance, holds no divine authority over atheists. Pope Francis is giving the reward of heaven to a group of people who not only don’t want the reward, but simply don’t believe in it. His denial, or possible ignorance, towards nonbelief is actually somewhat demeaning. He is talking of atheists as if they are lost children, who he knows will one day ‘come to their senses.’ When he said “but do good: we will meet one another there,” he said it tongue in cheek. He in no way means that he, or Catholicism, will contemplate changing their belief. Instead, the Pope is stating that the atheist are simply wrong, but God will let it slide and allow nonbelievers into heaven as long as they are good people. All in all, this mass changes nothing. Atheists still don’t believe, and the Catholic church still thinks they are the ones that got everything right.