No, the Pope Didn't Just Say All Atheists Go to Heaven

Instead, he was emphasizing the openness of the Catholic Church, which is perhaps even more important.

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Pope Francis arrives to lead a solemn profession of faith of the Italian bishops in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on May 23, 2013. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

Around 1660, a French mathematician and theologian named Blaise Pascal set out to explain logically why one should believe in God. Whereas previous thinkers had tried to prove God's existence, Pascal chose a different path. His argument, now known as Pascal's wager, stated that if you believed in God, and there was no God, you lost nothing. But if you did not believe in God, and there was a God, you lost everything. So why not believe in God?

Did Pope Francis just lay out a wager of his own? At mass on the 22nd, he said:

"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."

Some have reacted to this as a doctrine articulating the salvation of atheists. Having read all reported versions of Francis' homily, in both English and Italian, I do not find an explicit statement that an atheist who does that which is good, il bene in Italian, will be saved. However, Francis does emphasize the universality of Christ's redemptive power, and it is through that redemptive power that salvation becomes possible. He is clearly open to the idea that Christ may well redeem even those who are non-believers. More fully articulated, that would open up a new wager, in which whether or not one believed, one's actions in the world would determine one's access to paradise. Even the hint of such an idea from man whose spiritual power stems from being the heir to St. Peter, holder of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, is striking. Still, that God might save those who neither believe nor participate in the sacraments is not a new idea. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one finds the statement, "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments." If God wants to save someone, they will be saved.

Perhaps the focus on atheism, as breathtaking has this issue has proven to be for the media and blogosphere, misses the more powerful concept at the core of Francis' homily: the culture of encounter. In the documents from the Second Vatican Council, as well as much older texts, one finds numerous explicit statements about our shared humanity, universal rights, and the necessity to find common ground. This idea of encounter lays out a pathway for us to locate and recognize those commonalities.

Last week, Cardinal Sean O'Malley refused to attend the graduation of Boston College because they were honoring the Prime Minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny, who is supporting an abortion bill in his home country. I suggested, in another essay for The Atlantic¸ that rather than turn his back on Kenny, the Cardinal might instead seek to create opportunities for dialogue. Dialogue does not mean we will always agree, but that there is the potential to focus on that which unites rather than that which divides. In his homily, Pope Francis is laying out his roadmap for just how this might happen. The question now is whether this was just one of many thoughts expressed in a daily homily, or whether encounter will emerge as a new idea around which to shape the church in our complex, pluralistic, 21st-century world.

And that's been a startling pattern over the first few months of Francis' pontificate. He keeps making statements that make sense, that seem to shift the Church in new directions, and that open the door for more change. Supporters of these new directions worry that the conservative forces of the Curia, the rigid hierarchal minds behind the worst decisions of the last decades, will undermine Francis, who is often perceived as very much alone. But he was elected in what amounts to a landslide. The Cardinals assembled from around the world and chose, quickly, to change the Vatican's direction. Francis may prove a radical, but he's not a rebel: the establishment chose to pursue encounter over cloister. The cardinals and their Pope have made a wager. It will be a long time before we know if it pays off.