The Pope and the Good Atheists

Pope Francis
A lot of people took hope in the pope's recent comments about atheists and redemption:
The pope said, "the possibility of doing good is something we all have" as individuals created in the image and likeness of God. All people are called to do good and not evil, the pope said. Some would object, "'but, Father, he isn't Catholic so he can't do good.' Yes, he can. He must."
The idea that others cannot really be good and do good in the world creates "a wall that leads to war and to something that historically some people have thought: that we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that one can kill in God's name is blasphemy."
"The Lord has redeemed us all with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone," he said. Some may ask, "'Father, even the atheists?' Them, too. Everyone."
The commandment to do good and avoid evil is something that binds all human beings, he said, and it is "a beautiful path to peace."
There was widespread feeling among news organizations that the pope had opened the gates of heaven to atheists. The headlines blared: "Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate" (CNN); "Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics" (Huffingtion Post) and "Pope Francis: Atheists are all right!" (Salon). Later, "The Vatican," that sad outpost of clerical party poopers, walked back the pope's remarks.
"The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, has corrected his boss, saying those who know about the Catholic Church "cannot be saved" if they "refuse to enter her or remain in her."
Well, that settles that! Or does it?

It's unclear what exactly the pope meant when he spoke about redemption. According to A Concise Dictionary of Theology,God has been in the redemption biz throughout his relationship with human beings. Saving the Israelites from slavery and later delivering them from bondage in Babylon are the two primary OT example of God's redemptive work. In the New Testament, redemption means that "through his death and resurrection, Christ delivered us from the power of sin and evil." Is that what the pope meant? That atheists are also free from the power of sin and evil, and are liberated to do good, even if they do not recognize the source of their liberation?

It's still unclear whether the pope meant something theologically miserly like "Christ died for the sins of all, even atheists, though they will go to hell; unless they believe in Him," or the real possibility that by answering the inner calling to goodness, atheists have done the equivalent of signing on with God and Jesus. If I were the pope, I would put some lay-about theologians to work figuring out non-Catholics can achieve heaven. Let them whore away at something useful for a change. The sound you hear is of theologians banging their heads against 2000 years  of exclusionary theology.

In the meantime, I would love it if Catholics and other Christians would liberate themselves from overly-harsh interpretations of what it takes to get to heaven. Membership on this or that branch of Christianity seems too clubby for use by an all-holy and beneficent God. That approach just leads to an exclusivist approach that makes those on the inside suspicious and unloving toward of those on the outside. It leads to the religious wars that have marred our history. Almost as bad, it makes the insiders nice to outsiders, but only as a means to drag them away from the sinful cultures and into ours. Catholic missionaries used to scour newly-discovered lands for pagans they could convert. A Catholic friend of mine used to go door-to-door, pushing membership in the Legion of Mary. Other Christians pressure their friends and neighbors to confess that Jesus is their Lord and Savior. As if membership in a church or a single act of fidelity were enough to get God to issue them their Golden Gate ticket.

Pope Francis's comments, even if he did not means them as they were widely understood, might be the Holy Spirit working to make the Church a more welcoming place. It's not only Freudians who recognize slips as the voice of a deeper reality! At the very least, the pope's words should create an opening for Catholics to appreciate the efforts of atheists who do good in this world. All based on Christ's words, which the pope quoted:
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." (Mark 9:39)
Jesus speaks of a very wide doorway for those who are considered to be his: all who do good. Even if they are not formally on the same team. I would encourage Pope Francis to steer us back to this open and inclusive interpretation. As he said, though we may not all believe the same things in the same way, we can meet wherever there is an opportunity to do good. It is doing good that puts us on Jesus's team, not being on Jesus's team that allows us to do good.