I am very glad that for an increasing number of people Pope Francis is the man who delivers it. He does so especially through his well-publicized homilies, which are short and to the point. Typically, he preaches these at the daily Masses he usually celebrates in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican guest house where he has chosen to take up residence, instead of in the papal apartments.
Yesterday, Wednesday, 22 May, he preached on the short daily Gospel, which consisted of a mere three verses from the ninth chapter of St. Mark's Gospel:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his rewardCommenting on this passage, the Holy Father said,
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, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another thereIt seems clear that the "there" to which the Pontiff makes reference is not heaven, but doing good. The Christian and the charitable atheist will meet "there" at the soup kitchen, the food pantry, the homeless shelter, the refugee center, the AIDS hospice, the free clinic, etc., which becomes the place of encounter.
This led the HuffPo to put up a most unfortunate and misleading headline: "Pope Francis Says All Who Do Good are Redeemed- Atheists Included." It would've been more accurate to write that "All Who Do Evil Are Redeemed- Christians Included." As St. Paul wrote, "For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:22b-23).
People have been jumping all over this as if the Holy Father had announced some new breakthrough in Catholic teaching, or, as some surely hoped, articulating some actual change in doctrine, leading towards universalism. Of course, he was doing neither.
It seems to me that in this passage Pope Francis was articulating two things:
1) People who are atheists can perform acts of charity with selfless motivations (Of course they can, who asserted otherwise?)
2) That Christ died to redeem everyone, even people who are atheists (Of course He did, because by His holy cross, He has redeemed the world and everyone in it.)
I think the enthusiasm is probably generated either by a conflation of redemption and justification, or simply by ignoring justification altogether.
While the Catholic Church dogmatically rejects sola fide, insisting that faith is not mere subjective confidence that one is pardoned by God, but includes righteous works, she recognizes that justification itself is a work of grace. As the Catechism states: "Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. 'Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man'" (par. 1989). So, contra the misinformed headline, we don't redeem or justify ourselves.
Should an unbeliever attain heaven, which is not an impossibility (this is nothing new either- see Romans 2:12-18), it would be because of Jesus Christ, without whom, no one, including His Blessed Mother, would go to heaven.
Allow me to turn again to St. Paul, who summed up redemption well as part of his formulation of what is very likely the first Christian creed: "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3). And also in Romans 5:8: "But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!"
In a recent speech, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, England exhorted the faithful to be wary of the media's agenda when reporting on Pope Francis: "Expectations are subtly or less subtly raised that this is the man who will change the Catholic faith itself in accordance with the commentator’s own wishes and agenda." This episode, I think, provides us with a great case-in-point, which why a basic grasp of redemption is a good place to start.