This past week, Pope Francis, already one of the most controversial popes in recent memory, made a shocking proclamation during one of his homilies. In his sermon, he said that,
“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!”.. 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.”
What many people have interpreted this to mean is that according to Francis, everyone who does good deeds or is a good person has a free ticket to salvation; even those who don’t believe in it.
This is not a new idea by itself. Many people already believe that God doesn’t favor one person or group over the other, and that it is humanity that sees God’s favor in extremes. Nor is the Pope’s statement profound in that he said it at all. I have already heard many people say that while they appreciate a Pope who is more progressive and not as judgmental, they still feel they have no need for salvation or the acceptance of a divine being.
What is shocking about Francis proclamation is that he is the voice of an institution known for being the very opposite of what that proclamation represents. Traditional Catholicism has always prided itself on being the head of the one true church, which included the Orthodox denominations, Coptic Church, the Church of St. Thomas in India, and the Ethiopian church. This comes from the assertion that Jesus proclaimed Peter as the rock on which the church would be built.
All internal politics and machinations aside, this essentially gave Catholicism, and by extension, the Pope, the power to determine who was in and who was out. This has been one of the fundamental causes of religious conflict and tension.
Now it seems that Pope Francis is giving up Catholicism’s trump card and opening the gates of St. Peter to anybody who helps an old lady across the street. This is going to irk the more traditional Catholics, but more than that, it will rub many Protestant Christians the wrong way too.
Protestants could give little heed to Francis’ words on principle alone. The main foundation of any Protestant denomination is that no one person can determine another’s salvation, with the exception of Jesus himself. Also, many would hold up the biblical verses that explicitly state that only by accepting Jesus Christ does one receive salvation, and no papal homily or bull will ever trump that.
The real irony though is that Pope Francis’ homily could recast ancient Catholicism as the more humane and socially caring denomination. A place formally held by Protestants, who depending on their reaction, might now be seen as the traditional institution trying to hold on to its influence and power. Time will tell.