The pope starts talking like this and suddenly you’ve got atheists saying prayers. Let the healing begin.

I like him, and not just because he’s handing me easy content on a Friday afternoon when I’ve got nothin’. As other nonbelievers have noted, he’s a man who admirably emphasizes deeds over words. But did he really suggest that salvation awaits even the naysayers? At the Atlantic, David Perry says … not really, but sort of:

At mass on the 22nd, he 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 there.”

Some have reacted to this as a doctrine articulating the salvation of atheists. Having read all reported versions of Francis’ homily, in both English and Italian, I do not find an explicit statement that an atheist who does that which is good, il bene in Italian, will be saved. However, Francis does emphasize the universality of Christ’s redemptive power, and it is through that redemptive power that salvation becomes possible. He is clearly open to the idea that Christ may well redeem even those who are non-believers. More fully articulated, that would open up a new wager, in which whether or not one believed, one’s actions in the world would determine one’s access to paradise. Even the hint of such an idea from man whose spiritual power stems from being the heir to St. Peter, holder of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, is striking. Still, that God might save those who neither believe nor participate in the sacraments is not a new idea. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one finds the statement, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” If God wants to save someone, they will be saved.

I wrote about this at HA once before, after Hitchens died and Bill Bennett good-naturedly hoped that Hitch was getting a “big surprise” about the afterlife. You can read that post here. How can it be that, if the Church is the path to Christ and Christ is the path to salvation, someone who didn’t choose that path can find salvation regardless? It’s true that the Church since Vatican II has opened the door to salvation for non-Catholics — this compendium of Vatican pronouncements on the subject is useful although maybe slightly dated — but that seems to come with the caveats (a) that you’re in better shape salvation-wise if you’re a non-Catholic “through no fault of your own,” i.e. you live somewhere that the Church simply hasn’t penetrated, and (b) at the very least, you should be practicing some sort of religion, elements of which may bestow some of the grace that comes with Christianity. By those lights, atheists seem … poorly positioned.

You tell me, then, since virtually all of our readers are more theologically well-versed than I am: What exactly is Francis saying? He seems to be arguing, true to form, that Christian deeds are more important than words. But it’s unclear whether he means that’s enough for redemption, which seems unlikely, or merely whether it’s a necessary beginning. All he’s really saying, I think, is “baby steps.” Start out by doing good, which will give you common ground with (some) believers, and that might open you up to joining the Church later. It’s an important step on the path to salvation, but only a step. You’ve got to go the rest of the way through belief. It simply can’t be that the leader of the Church thinks there’s an end-around the gospels and sacraments to heaven simply by performing good works. Can it?