The journalistic farce that followed Pope Francis’ now-famous “atheists” homily is best viewed through Monty Python lenses, where it is in many ways like the final scene of the Life of Brian.1 There, a centurion comes to rescue Brian from the cross, but when he asks “Where is Brian of Nazareth?!” everyone volunteers, even to the point of one of the other crucifixion victims saying “I’m Brian, and so’s my wife!”
Let’s backtrack though and see what happened step by step. First, there was Francis’ homily itself:
“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.”When I first read this, a couple of hours after Francis delivered it during his 7 am Domus Sanctae Marthae mass on 22nd May, I felt great joy and gratitude for having a Pope who is open and welcoming to all - just like Jesus was. I thought no more about it, since it seemed to me to be just a re-iteration - albeit a very welcome and clear one - of what the Church has been teaching consistently since Vatican II.2 In essence, Francis was saying that we hope to see atheists in heaven as much as we hope to be there ourselves. This is not to impose beliefs on those who believe neither in God nor in the existence of heaven, but to assure them that we, Catholics (and many other Christians too), believe in a God who loves all and welcomes all, regardless of their beliefs.
When I then looked at Twitter later in the day, I saw it ablaze with two types of reactions: very positive ones both from Christians and atheists, welcoming the invitation to dialogue and the appreciation of the good done by atheists (e.g., see the Huffington Post article from the same day and note the Pope’s homily being the second most shared piece on Reddit) and very critical ones - mainly from “traditional” Catholics (e.g., see a particularly forceful and conceited criticism here).
The day ended well for this story though, with a spot-on rebuke of Francis’ critics from a 1964 homily of the then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, shared in a blog post by Anna Williams:
“It seems as if we want to be rewarded, not just with our own salvation, but most especially with other people’s damnation—just like the workers hired in the first hour. That is very human, but the Lord’s parable [of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-6)] is particularly meant to make us quite aware of how profoundly un-Christian it is at the same time.”So far, so good: another great homily by Pope Francis, mostly positive and some negative reactions and a great put-down of the critics to round out the day.
The next morning, the weather turned though and a farce of epic proportion began brewing with the news of a Vatican spokesperson having issued a correction of Pope Francis’ words. As far as I can tell, the source of this red herring was a post on cnn.com, which stated that “On Thursday, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation.’” The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who [are] aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”” This was quickly picked up by media outlets around the world, with headlines like: “Vatican Clarifies Pope’s ‘Atheist’ Remarks,” “Vatican corrects Pope: Atheists are still going to hell,” and “Not so fast: Vatican says Pope Francis got it wrong, atheists do go to hell.”
It was immediately clear to me that something didn’t add up here: first, Fr. Thomas Rosica isn’t “a Vatican spokesman” (Fr. Federico Lombardi being “the” Vatican spokesperson, who has been in office for many years),3 second, “people who are aware of the Catholic Church and are not in her cannot be saved” is not at all what the Catechism says4 and third, any member of the Catholic Church (never mind a priest or Vatican member of staff) who felt it to be their job to issue an “explanatory note” about the Pope’s words off their own back and unprompted by the Pope better check themselves, before they wreck themselves.
In any case, I was curious to see this alleged “explanatory note,” so I (foolishly!) headed over to the Vatican website, where - naturally - there was no trace of it. Instead, I tracked it down on zenith.org here and I found - as I should have anticipated - that it was actually not a bad commentary on Francis’ words (and, no, it did not contain the offensive quote on “being aware of the Catholic Church” attributed to it on cnn.com). So, the facts of the matter are that the Vatican never issued any communication to “correct” Francis’ words and Fr. Rosica actually did a good job of commenting on the Pope’s words in my opinion (if you take care to read the whole text rather than pick phrases out of context - or even misquote them).
Like in so many cases before (did anyone say “Jesus’ wife”?), this incident was a display of journalistic ineptitude, carelessness and superficiality.
To conclude though I’d rather leave you on a positive note - a quote from Pope John Paul II’s address to the United Nations from 1995, which Fr. Rosica quoted in his explanatory note:
“Because of the radiant humanity of Christ, nothing genuinely human fails to touch the hearts of Christians. Faith in Christ does not impel us to intolerance. On the contrary, it obliges us to engage others in a respectful dialogue. Love of Christ does not distract us from interest in others, but rather invites us to responsibility for them, to the exclusion of no one and indeed, if anything, with a special concern for the weakest and the suffering. Thus, as we approach the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ, the Church asks only to be able to propose respectfully this message of salvation, and to be able to promote, in charity and service, the solidarity of the entire human family.”[UPDATE] I actually started writing this post several days ago and I was beginning to wonder whether it still made sense to publish it, since the events it speaks about took place two weeks ago. Surely the storm in a teacup would have died down since then and Francis’ words would be seen for what they were. Last night and then this morning I saw two articles that changed my mind though: first, one by the otherwise very cogent Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, who concluded his latest blog post with the following: “Heresy, and atheism, produce nothing beautiful. They can’t. They are stony barren fields.” and second, a post by the atheist Herb Silverman, whose take on the matter is that “Perhaps Pope Francis forgot to run this concession by the papal censors, because the following day the Vatican announced a do-over. The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that those who are aware of the Catholic Church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.” […] So Rev. Rosica is simply reiterating the traditional Catholic position that atheists can go to hell.” Sadly, this post still has currency, but I hope that you have found it to be of some interest.
1 And those of you who are well versed in all matters Python, will also have spotted the direct reference to the “nurse” sketch, which is closely related to the present matter too.
2 For previous coverage of how the Church relates to atheists, see the following posts.
3 Though he did translate for Lombardi during the last conclave, so the mixup could be excused - if the source were not supposed to be engaged in journalism.
4 What the Catechism actually says is this: “Hence 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.” (§846) Knowing and necessary - two very strong words, on a very different end of the scale to being aware that the Catholic Church exists! In effect it means that if you act against your own certain conviction that being in the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation, you are choosing to reject it and it is your freedom that is being respected instead of you being excluded.