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Did Pope Francis Really Say Atheists Are Going to Heaven?

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Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 09/14/13

The media seems to have no interested in theological nuance - only sensational headlines. Pope Francis reiterated the long-standing teaching of the Church.

In a winning style that is reminiscent of Pope John Paul I’s charming letters to the various historical figures, Pope Francis has written a very personal letter to the founder of a major Italian newspaper.  Over the summer, Eugenio Scalfari – an agnostic – wrote a series of editorials posing some theological questions. Pope Francis responded with a warm-hearted explanation of the Christian faith and the personal encounter with Christ that lies at the heart of it.

Journalists ignored the strong gospel message of the Pope’s letter to focus on one paragraph in which Pope Francis addresses the question of whether God can forgive agnostics and atheists. The Daily Telegraph’s Nick Squires reports that the Pope says, “God forgives those who follow their conscience.” However, in the Zenit translation of the letter, these words do not appear. The Pope writes:

First of all, you ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn’t believe and doesn’t seek the faith. Premise that – and it’s the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to and to obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action.

Nowhere does the Holy Father state that “God forgives those who follow their conscience.” What he does state is that “the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart.” Strange how Mr. Squires omitted that important word, “if,” and what came after it. God’s mercy is everlasting, and he does desire that no one should perish. But as the Pope teaches, we cannot receive God’s mercy if we do not ask for it, and we do this by turning to him “with a sincere and contrite heart.”

Simply obeying one’s conscience is not enough, and the Pope never said it was. Instead, the Pope is teaching that without the light of faith and belief in God, the only thing left for the agnostic or atheist to follow is the light of their conscience. This limited light can help a person decide between good and evil, but the light of the human conscience alone, without divine grace and the acceptance of divine revelation, is very limited. Not only is one’s conscience on its own a limited light, but that light is shaded by the influences of the secular world and distorted by individual sin and ignorance. The light of individual conscience is like a match flame in the darkened cave. It is better than nothing, but it does not compare to the full strength searchlight of God’s enlightening grace.

Once again, the secular writers have taken a snippet of the Pope’s comments out of context and distorted them to make Pope Francis fit into their “progressive” agenda. It is heartening that the journalists emphasize God’s mercy, but what Squires and others have missed are the Pope’s reminder that to find God’s forgiveness, one must turn to him with not only sincerity, but a contrite heart. A contrite heart is a penitent heart. It is a heart and mind that says first and foremost, “I am a sinner in need of God. I need assistance and forgiveness. I need the Divine Mercy.” 

As soon as any son or daughter of Adam turns to God with such a state of mind, the everlasting mercy overflows.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book, The Romance of Religion, will be published by Thomas Nelson in February of 2014.

Pope Francis
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