A doctrinally tricky position

According to the Guardian, Pope Francis has stated that atheists have also been redeemed by Jesus. The Pope recounted a question from a Catholic, who asked whether atheists had been redeemed by Jesus, to which he replied “Even them, everyone”. He commented “We all have the duty to do good”, going on to say ““Just do good, and we’ll find a meeting point,” in reply to the hypothetical comment: “But I don’t believe. I’m an atheist.”

Now, unless the Catholic Church have ditched their doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, one finds that a hard claim to maintain. To quote Vatican II directly: ““They could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it” (Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 14). A plain understanding of this doctrine, as well as the natural reading of previous papal statements, makes this a difficult one to uphold.

More bizarre still, Pope Francis’ statement is said to stand “in marked contrast to the attitude of his predecessor, Benedict, who sometimes prompted complaints from non-Catholics that he seemed to see them as second-class believers.” However, on the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, it strikes me Benedict was being consistent. Definitionally, the Catholic Church teaches that one is a second-class believer – indeed, not a believer at all – if one consciously cedes from the Church. There can be little doubt that the majority of Western atheists are not outside the Catholic Church because they are ignorant of its existence. Therefore, it seems Pope Francis is speaking against his own church here.

This whole issue also begs the question why those who reject the Catholic Church should be remotely bothered whether the Pope views them as believers of equal standing? The very nature of belief dictates we hold to what we believe true and reject that which we deem false. Those who agree with us are right thinking, logical individuals. Those who disagree with us are “mad, swivel-eyed loons”, or some such. Quite why those who have rejected the Catholic Church, whether on the basis that it is errant, misguided or down right loopy, should expect the Catholic Church to hold their beliefs in any regard seems odd to me. Why would that Church, with its clearly defined doctrines, pretend they hold opposing beliefs in any regard at all? Clearly those who cede from this Church don’t hold the doctrines and teachings of Catholicism in any regard (and why should they?) but to expect the Catholic Church to hold your views to a different standard than that to which you hold theirs seems hypocritical at best.

Fortunately for Catholicism, it seems Pope Francis wasn’t speaking ex cathedra. There are handy safeguards built in to Papal Infallibility such that “a doctrine proposed by a pope as his own opinion, not solemnly proclaimed as a doctrine of the Church, may be rejected as false, even if it is on a matter of faith and morals, and even more any view he expresses on other matters”. That’ll presumably be a relief when he spots the flaw…