Pope Francis's letter to Eugenio Scalfari regarding, in part, the possibility of salvation for atheists titillated the press and scandalized evangelical Christians. "Pope Francis Assures: Atheists You Don't Have to Believe in God to Go to Heaven," read the headline of the Independent. "In an unprecedented move, Pope Francis reached out to atheists and agnostics, telling them that God will 'forgive' them as long as they behave morally and live according to their consciences..." reported Fox News.
"Say what? Catholics please explain this," tweeted evangelical reporter David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. "Evangelicals are NOT kosher with this." Multiple born again friends of mine echoed Brody's outrage in private emails to me.
Both the reporting of this episode and the evangelical backlash to it are borne of ignorance. Any Christian with a clear understanding of the concepts of conscience and contrition, as well as a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the media's coverage of such matters will embrace the Pope's message to atheists.
Here's the controversial section from the Pope's letter:
First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith.
Given that -- and this is fundamental -- God's mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience.
In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil.
The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.
Here the Pope is not saying, you don't need Christ, you only need your conscience, as has been reported and as some evangelicals have reacted to so strongly. No pope would ever say this because without Christ there is no conscience. Indeed conscience, properly understood, is both from Christ and leads to Christ.
Man's conscience is "inscribed by God," as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains. "His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths" (CCC 1776). And when he listens to his conscience, man hears God:
"Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking" (CCC 1777).
What Pope Francis is saying, and what the Church has always believed, is that man's conscience was written into his soul by God and living according to it leads him more deeply to God. In his letter, Pope Francis asks Eugenio Scalfari and other atheists to follow this path.
Now, looking at the second important piece of the pope's reply to Scalfari, he writes, "God's mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart." The media and some evangelicals have interpreted this as the Pope essentially saying, God is so merciful even atheists get to Heaven.
That's inaccurate. The Pope is saying that God's mercy extends to atheists "if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart."
Now, contrition is no small matter. In fact, Catholics identify contrition as an act of conversion:
Jesus calls to conversion. This call is an essential part of the proclamation of the kingdom: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." In the Church's preaching this call is addressed first to those who do not yet know Christ and his Gospel. Also, Baptism is the principal place for the first and fundamental conversion. It is by faith in the Gospel and by Baptism that one renounces evil and gains salvation, that is, the forgiveness of all sins and the gift of new life.
Christ's call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, "clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] follows constantly the path of penance and renewal." This endeavor of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a "contrite heart," drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first. (CCC: 1427-1428).
There's that expression again: "contrite heart." And the Psalmist assures us that, "a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not spurn." (Psalm 51:19).
Pope Francis is clearly telling Eugenio Scalfari that there is hope for atheists if they follow their consciences (which are inscribed by God) and convert by, through grace, turning to God and against sin, and "respond[ing] to the merciful love of God who loved us first."
Now, evangelicals and Catholics would strongly disagree over how we "respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first." But Catholics understand we respond to God's love by living the sacramental life, which is to worship and love and follow the Lord.
In his letter, Pope Francis calls Scalfari and atheists to conversion in a gentle and respectful way. This is evangelization. This is what Christ called on his church to do.