As I begin this post on humility, allow me to say that I called it. That is, from almost the beginning, I had a sense that Pope Francis would be very challenging to us Catholics, to all of us Catholics. Challenging in a good way, calling us out into greater holiness and spiritual maturity, but nonetheless challenging.
I was right.
So, there's been a lot of todo over a recent homily by our Holy Father, in which he made the shockingly Catholic pronouncement that atheists can, and must, do good. Not only that, but everyone, including atheists, are redeemed by the Blood of Christ.
There are many excellent posts out there which explain Catholic theology (such as the difference between redemption and salvation), or point out the His Holiness is not saying that atheists automatically go to heaven by doing good works (the there he is referring to is actually peace, as noted by Jimmy Akin here). For a fuller understanding of what the Pope said, both in context of the whole homily and in the context of Catholic Theology, I highly recommend reading Mr. Akin's article, or articles on the topic by bloggers such as Mark Shea.
However, I'm going to run with it in a slightly different direction. What if Pope Francis really did mean that in some way, doing good might lead atheists to heaven?
Let me be very specific here. Works do not, and cannot save. Jesus Christ is the one and only person capable of saving anyone. However, while the sacraments are the ordinary mode by which we receive grace, as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, God is not constrained by the sacraments.
The heart of Pope Francis's statement is a contradiction of the Protestant notion of depravity, namely that after the fall, humanity became essentially evil, and that we are merely covered by the Blood of Christ and considered to be no longer foul. Rather, Catholicism teaches that man is intrinsically very good (God's statement on observing everything after the creation of Adam and Eve on the 6th day), and that at the fall, the intrinsically very good man was weakened, that he might deny his dignity.
That is to say, even atheists, described in scripture as fools (the fool says in his heart "there is no God") partake in the redemption of Christ accomplished once and for all upon the Cross. By His sacrifice, every single person is strengthened in sacrificing his selfishness and doing good.
More than that, what is God? God is Good. Not attributively, essentially. There is a big kerfuffle in philosophy debating whether good is good because of or in spite of the will of God, expressed thusly: Is it good because God loves it, or does God love it because it's good? Neither idea is pleasing, for if an act is good because God loves it, then God is capricious, but if God loves it because it is good, then God is subject to goodness. The Catholic answer is that God is goodness itself, and that all good things partake in his goodness. Therefore, it is good because it partakes in His goodness, and He loves it because it is good, that is to say it partakes in His goodness.That means that all that is good is of God.
All that is true is of God.
All that is beautiful is of God.
So back to the question of salvation. What is salvation? Ultimately it is a particular type of encounter with the Savior of the World. It is an acceptance of his gift, which we are empowered to accept by the fact of our redemption, effected by His death upon the cross.
Well then, what is doing good but encountering goodness itself, which is God, which is Jesus, the Christ, the Savior?
Good works, then, do not save us, but dispose us to salvation, and that is true regardless of the state of the soul. Every time you choose the good of another person, especially when it comes at a personal cost, you participate in the ultimate sacrifice of the cross, and encounter God whether you know it or not!
Now to the title of the post.
In Matthew 20.1-16 we read:
The kingdom of heaven is like to an householder, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And having agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour, he saw others standing in the market place idle. And he said to them: Go you also into my vineyard, and I will give you what shall be just. And they went their way. And again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did in like manner.
But about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing, and he saith to them: Why stand you here all the day idle? They say to him: Because no man hath hired us. He saith to them: Go you also into my vineyard. And when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard saith to his steward: Call the labourers and pay them their hire, beginning from the last even to the first. When therefore they were come, that came about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first also came, they thought that they should receive more: and they also received every man a penny.
And receiving it they murmured against the master of the house, Saying: These last have worked but one hour, and thou hast made them equal to us, that have borne the burden of the day and the heats. But he answering said to one of them: Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree with me for a penny? Take what is thine, and go thy way: I will also give to this last even as to thee. Or, is it not lawful for me to do what I will? is thy eye evil, because I am good?
There is a certain pride with which we Christians, and especially we Catholics can view salvation. We are truly privileged, knowing our destiny, knowing who we are, whose we are, and what we are meant for. We are blessed, especially as Catholics, to have at our disposal the fullness of truth on earth. And it is true that no matter how possible it is for a non-Catholic to achieve salvation, a Catholic is bound to the Church (for to whom much is given, much is expected).
But think how vile this thought. The Father of Lies twists and tempts even in this moment of approaching a state of grace in the fullness of truth; we feel as though there is some gain in our virtue only if another is punished for their lack of virtuousness. As if our reward is only worth something if someone else suffers.
This, then, is to commit one of the sins against the Holy Spirit, to envy another's spiritual good. That is, to deny the might of God's mercy. That is, to reject God.
This, then, is the challenge I think, from our Pope who talks about meeting atheists in good works while at the same time telling us that if we are not praying to the Lord we are praying to the devil: It is both possible and necessary to pray and work for the conversion of souls, all the while recognizing their capacity for good, and their participation in goodness, truth, and beauty.
Turns out, surprise surprise, that atheists are just like us - capable of good, in need of a savior, and able to do better.