Pope Francis a Universalist? Perhaps….

4577728-3x2-700x467In the midst of other worldwide theological furores, and local stuff with heretical bishops and the like, it seems that even Pope Francis is taking his share of the limelight. According to the Huff this week Pope Francis strongly implied a universalist position with his statement:
“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!”
The Huff has reported on it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/atheists-like-what-they-see-in-pope-francis-new-openness_n_3329548.html and the Irish here: http://www.irishcentral.com/news/Atheists-big-fans-of–Pope-Francis-openness-and-good-works-among-those-in-need-209048751.html

Now that does sound very universalist, with all people being redeemed by the cross, not just the Catholics, and it appears that Francis’ handlers think so too. A couple of days later they issued a correction to Francis’ homily, clearly stating that all who are apostate from the Catholic church are condemned:
“Although they are otherwise good, moral people they are still doomed to burn in a lake of fire for having the temerity to have been born outside of Catholicism or having chosen to remain so.”
http://www.irishcentral.com/story/ent/manhattan_diary/vatican-corrects-infallible-pope-atheists-will-still-burn-in-hell-208987111.html

This has raised some eyebrows around the world, with the “moral atheists” obviously being rather unhappy about it, as too are many Protestants who thought that there might have been some form of reconciliation on the table. However, to me it sounds like a whole bunch of semantics over three words: ‘redeemed’, ‘salvation’ and ‘infallible’.

Firstly, when Francis talks about ‘redeemed’ does he merely mean that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was sufficient for all humanity, but will only be effective for those who believe (whether you take an election or free will argument)? I would suggest that this is probably the easiest orthodox reading of Francis’ statement, but it does end up slightly semantically skewed. All of humanity redeemed, but not all of humanity justified… its hard to see how those two can be separated. Indeed, this seems to be the place that his handlers have ended up when they issue the correction.

Secondly, along with the redemption question, and tightly linked, is the issue of what does Francis think it means to have ‘salvation.’ Is it for him simply a position of being able to do good works? Or is it to stand justified before the throne in Christ? Without further homilies or statements to rely on its a bit hard to tell at the moment, but from this homily it does seem to trend towards the ability to do good works. Now I don’t want to be heard saying that doing good works is outside of the realm of anyone who is not in Christ, and I want to affirm that it does come back to the view of the image of God in humanity. But to equate good works with justification and salvation is stretching it….. a lot.

Finally, infallibility. The doctrine has been swirling around for quite a few years now, with various Popes taking differing stances on it. Pope John XXIII is recorded as saying: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly but I shall never do that, so I am not infallible.” But it seems that the principal place for the Pope to be infallible is when they are ex cathedra. Is a homily ex cathedra? Perhaps, but Francis’ handlers certainly don’t think so.

It will be interesting to see how this one plays out, and I wonder whether Francis has been reading Rob Bell?

Chris

About Chris