Even the Atheists

Pope Francis reminds us that Christ’s sacrifice is not just for Catholics

Atheists and nonbelievers gather for the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. (CNS photo/Tyrone Turner courtesy of Religion News Service)
Atheists and nonbelievers gather for the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. (CNS photo/Tyrone Turner courtesy of Religion News Service)
It’s often that religious people adopt a “holier than thou” attitude that professes that they have all the answers and that their particular religion is the wing nut that holds God together for the rest of the planet. (“If they’d only join OUR religion, all would be well with the world.”)

And while I’m sure that Pope Francis would hope that most people would in fact, see the beauty of Catholicism, last week he reminded all of us that “doing good” surpasses any affirmation of a particular faith tradition:

“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.”

As a Jesuit, Pope Francis is probably familiar with the concept of the anonymous Christian, proposed by Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. While the Church teaches that salvation comes through Christ alone, Rahner offered that seeing people doing good things was a sign that Christ was working through those actions even though the person doing those actions may not be aware of Christ’s presence in his/her life.

A story tells of the time a Buddhist priest objected to Rahner’s theory and proposed that Rahner was an “anonymous Buddhist.” Fr. Rahner carefully took a pause, smiled, and bowed to the Buddhist and said, “I accept that.” In that humility, Rahner admitted that indeed he would never hold all the answers.

Pope Francis is taking a much more humble approach in proclaiming that God does not necessarily need our recognition in order for us to do good in the world. After all, if we truly believe in the mercy of God, would God not then forgive a good-hearted atheist for not believing in him? To further the point, might God even give more credit to an atheist who loved many and did much good rather than to someone who ignores the needs of the poor and attends church each Sunday for an hour that seemingly makes no difference in their lives?

“The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. Instead, this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.”

The pope reminds us that both religious and non-religious people can place the need to be right over and against the desire for peace in the world. Indeed, that may be where Pope Francis can call us to a greater engagement with one another in order to understand what each of us finds important in the world today. We are called to encounter one another in the various places we find one another doing good. As a Jesuit, Pope Francis prays the Examen twice a day and it is in that prayer that he tries to find these very moments of grace and consolation in his own day. Perhaps we too are called to look not at the differences or even the disagreements we have with others, but rather, look to the good. What is the good that we see in our friends who do not fully share our particular beliefs in God?

I have little patience for those who are “soap box Christians,” who believe that their religion gives them the right to cleanse the world of who they deem “heretics.” Pope Francis understands that we live in a greatly divided world, but he also knows that God alone can heal the divisions of this world peacefully, rather than through violence. The call of Christ to do good and avoid evil has to start with a move toward unity rather than division. Intolerance by the religious as well as the non-religious is in fact the only thing of which we should be intolerant.

From time to time I am confronted by radical fundamentalists and angry atheists — the two extremes where we find those who hold tight to religion and those who disparage religion altogether. I’m not out to change their opinions, but rather to be understood and to understand. It takes longer to not choose sides; it takes a lot more energy and investment.

Pope Francis chooses to look for the good in these relationships, and that certainly can lead us to hope. Hope for good to triumph in a world that very much needs good people, good ideas, and good efforts. We Catholics are not alone in that regard. Can we find the good in everyone?

And in doing so, we just might find peace.