In his Wednesday Mass homily this week, Pope Francis attracted considerable media attention. According to reports, the message drew on Mark 9:40, where Jesus says, “He who is not against us is for us.” Like the disciples, we can be intolerant of the good that others can do—even atheists. Because we’re all created in God’s image, there is still a possibility of doing good. So far, nothing particularly controversial in terms of classical Christian teaching. The most ardent evangelical would affirm that although our works are so corrupted by sin that they cannot justify us before God, they can help our neighbors.
However, the pontiff added, “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.”
Reports from major outlets, including the Huffington Post, express astonishment at the pope’s comments. What is this strange new teaching? Of course, it’s not new at all. It has been an emphasis ever since the Second Vatican Council, where the previously shunned speculations of Karl Rahner, S. J., became official teaching. There is no way to reconcile the previous councils and papal pronouncements depriving non-Roman Catholics of salvation with the idea of the “anonymous Christian.” Nevertheless, there it is. Not the development of dogma, as Cardinal Newman formulated, but the flat contradiction of dogma.
Before Vatican II, the standard teaching was that ordinarily no one can be saved who does not submit to the magisterium and papal authority in particular. Especially in trouble were those who had been reared Roman Catholic and yet explicitly rejected the pope’s headship. Although they were consigned to everlasting punishment by papal decrees, the Protestant Reformers never applied the same rule to their Roman Catholic opponents. Calvin even said that although Rome has excommunicated itself according to the criterion of Galatians 1:8-9, “There is a true church among her.”
What has changed? We keep hearing from Protestants that, given the Vatican II reforms, if Luther and Calvin were alive today they’d renew their Roman Catholic membership cards. I doubt it. Not even the craziness of contemporary Protestantism could push them to make that move against a Scripture-bound conscience.
What has changed is that Rome has carried its incipient Semi-Pelagianism to its logical conclusion. I know, Karl Rahner and Vatican II repeatedly condemn Pelagianism and extol grace as the fundamental basis for salvation. Yet that has always been Rome’s teaching. It is by grace alone that we are empowered to cooperate in meriting further grace and, one hopes, final justification.
The Reformers never accused the medieval church of embracing outright Pelagianism, but of that subtler form of works-righteousness that invokes grace as no more than assistance for our attainment of God’s favor. Maybe Protestants don’t get that because this is essentially the same tendency at work in many mainline and evangelical churches.
There is a certain truth, then, to the idea of development, at least from the sixteenth-century Council of Trent and the twentieth-century Second Vatican Council. Various seeds have come to full flower:
- Collapsing special revelation into general revelation, and therefore the gospel into the law, Rome maintains that Scripture provides a higher revelation—greater illumination. The gospel is simply “the new law”—easier than the old covenant—with Christ as a “new Moses.”
- Collapsing our works into Christ’s, the familiar slogan of the medieval church was “God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them.” It is this slogan that is official dogma, according to Vatican II and the current Catechism of the Catholic Church.
- The Council of Trent anathematized the view that we are so thoroughly bound by sin that we cannot cooperate with God’s grace by our own free will. The new dogma simply extends this logic to conclude that everyone is “in Christ,” infused with saving grace, and capable of attaining final justification by grace-empowered works.
- The medieval dogma of implicit faith was a way of demanding absolute obedience to everything taught by the pope and magisterium, which Calvin described as “ignorance disguised as humility.” Now, implicit faith is invoked to support the idea that even atheists evidence an openness to divinity by their good works. They may not have explicit faith in Christ—or even in any transcendent Creator, but it lies buried in their sub-consciousness nevertheless.
What’s different is this: where the older view denied that faith was sufficient for justification, the new view denies that faith—at least the explicit faith in Christ everywhere assumed in Scripture—is even necessary. In other words, good works not only now supplement faith in justifying sinners but replace faith entirely.
It’s no wonder that the media is welcoming this Wednesday homily with such glee. Aside from some major social problems, the world, after all, is not as in need of being rescued as we thought. We just need a little direction to get back on the road, some encouragement to be more tolerant and attentive to the plight of others. Somehow Jesus Christ has made it possible for all of us to wind up in heaven (purgatory, etc., left to the fine print).
But is this a gospel—good news? Perhaps it is to good people who could be a little better, but not to the ungodly who need to be justified before a holy God. What’s so amazing is that the pope’s message is treated as kinder and freer, even though it replaces faith in Christ with our own acts of charity. For anyone who knows what God counts as true love—and therefore good works, this can only provoke deeper guilt and fear.
Although the surprise expressed by the Huffington Post report cited above reveals unfamiliarity with official teaching, it does get one important thing right in its conclusion: “Of course, not all Christians believe that those who don’t believe will be redeemed, and the Pope’s words may spark memories of the deep divisions from the Protestant reformation over the belief in redemption through grace versus redemption through works.” Anyone who thinks that the Reformation is over doesn’t realize just how much further from the gospel Rome has moved in recent decades.