Several news media outlets are republishing comments by Pope Francis a couple of years ago about salvation for atheists. Take a look at this example. The post is by an atheist who says he doesn’t really care if “a Supreme Being I disbelieve in will welcome me into a place I also disbelieve in.” OK, fair enough. But he also likes the idea that everyone who follows their conscience is “on the same side”. Good.
Yes, everyone who is in good conscience — which must include true love of neighbor, a concern to live according to moral truth, and avoiding whatever one realizes is gravely immoral — is in the state of grace and on the path to Heaven. And we can also say that everyone who is in the state of grace is a child of God and a member, at least implicitly, of the Church, the sole Ark of Salvation.
But what happens if their conscience tells them the wrong thing? God does not condemn anyone who errs, even gravely, due to a sincere but mistaken conscience. Which consciences are sincere is for God to judge. But we know that among fallen sinners, not everyone is in good conscience, not everyone loves their neighbor, not everyone cares about right and wrong. If you are in bad conscience, then you are not on the path to Heaven, even if your conscience fails to recognize which acts are gravely immoral. Ignorance is culpable when it is willful. For willful blindness to moral truth is itself a grave sin.
An atheist can have a sincere but mistaken conscience when he rejects belief in God and religion. But he still must love his neighbor and repent from any grave sins against his own good conscience. I am certain that some atheists go to Heaven, despite not believing in God. But I am also certain that, of the atheists who go to Hell, most are sent there NOT for their failure to believe in God, but for the usual reasons that believers are also sent to Hell: grave sins of sex, violence, malice, selfishness, etc.
A person can be in a state of grace and obtain salvation by accepting Christ implicitly — by the love of neighbor. For the true love of neighbor always includes, at least implicitly, the love of God.
But a person can also sin gravely and lose salvation by rejecting Christ implicitly — by malice toward one’s neighbor or by living a thoroughly selfish life. For every grave sin against one’s neighbor is a sin against God. Whoever hates his neighbor, hates God.
What does Pope Francis say?
Responding to a list of questions published in the paper by Mr Scalfari, who is not a Roman Catholic, Francis wrote: “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience. Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.” [Source]
The Pope’s words imply that an atheist can go to Heaven, without converting to belief in God. His failure to believe must not be an actual mortal sin, due to invincible ignorance. He must obtain the state of grace by some form of baptism. Perhaps he was baptized with water as a child. Or he might enter the state of grace by an implicit baptism of desire, or by a baptism of blood. In addition to entering the state of grace, the atheist must either avoid all actual mortal sin, or repent with implicit perfect contrition. Atheists can possibly die in the state of grace and enter Heaven, after a temporary stay in Purgatory.
Atheists can certainly be saved without converting to belief in God. But they can also die unrepentant from actual mortal sin, and suffer eternal punishment. And the path to Heaven, for an atheist, is much more difficult than for a believer. The further one goes away from the fullness of truth in the Catholic Faith, the more difficult the path to Heaven becomes.
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