The Pope’s comments on the capacity of atheists (and others) to “do good” leaves me confused. The Pope seems to saying three things:
1. All people have the capacity to do good, since all people are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27);
2. Jesus’ death is redemptive for all humanity, whether or not one “believes;” and
3. All good people can “meet” in acts of goodness.
Very heady stuff, but I’m not exactly clear as to what it means. Let’s take up each point in turn.
1. All people have the capacity to do good. That itself is very liberal, as so many Christians believe that only those who are guided by God to the good can do the good. The Pope is saying that goodness is something we humans can discern without the help of God, or at least without believing in God, and I applaud him for that.
2. Is Jesus’ death redemptive for all of us, regardless of believe or lack thereof? This isn’t what the Gospel of John tells us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)…. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).
In other words, just because Jesus died for all of us, only those of us who accept the redemption offered by Christ are saved. And, according to Catholic doctrine, that can be done only within the context of the Catholic Church: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: "outside the church there is no salvation.”
So is the Pope saying there is salvation outside the Church, and even outside Christianity? I don’t see that in his statement. Atheists can do good, but without Christ and the Catholic Church salvation is something beyond their reach.
3. The notion that all good people can meet in acts of goodness only means that we can unite on social justice issues we have in common regardless of our beliefs. Nothing all that exciting here.
So what is the commotion? Until Pope Francis clarifies his understanding of redemption and salvation there is nothing to get excited about here. I look forward to his telling us more.
PS: If I have misunderstood Catholic doctrine on these matters, please set me straight in the Comments section. I do not pretend to be an expert in Catholicism (or anything else for that matter).