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.