Last May Pope Francis cause a bit of a stir at one of his Wednesday audience when he said that atheists can go to heaven too!

There was an echo of that “stir” towards the end of the public lecture last Monday night on Islam.  Memories of school catechism classes were stirred and questions from the floor wondered that if a non-believer could skit into heaven, why bother with Christianity at all?

The teaching of the Church is and has always been that salvation is won for all humankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus and is shared with us in a personal way through the Church.  It has also been the teaching of the Church that those who through no fault of their own do not know Jesus and are not formal members of the Church are not excluded from salvation by that fact and that if they follow their conscience, living a good life, they too, through the power of Jesus, will share the full of life with God.  St Paul says as much in the second chapter of his letter to the Romans: “For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour  and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7).

People can be related to the Church (and therefore to Jesus) in a great variety of ways.  This is spelled out in the Vatican 2 document On The Church (Lumen Gentium) par 15 and 16; there we learn to respect the goodness and grace to be found in all religions and to leave to God how people who, through no fault of their own, do not know or relate to Jesus are brought into the New and Eternal Covenant in the Risen Jesus.

Our joy is that we have been personally introduced to the Risen Lord and we encounter him in so many ways.  We take his message to spread the good news to every human being with complete seriousness and yet we remember how Jesus had to restrain his close friend John who said to him ‘Master, we saw a man who is not one of us casting out devils in your name and because he was not one of us we tried to step him.  But Jesus said “You must not stop him…Anyone who is not against us is for us’” (Mark 9:38-40).

The official Catechism of the Catholic Church address the issues raised by the saying “Outside the Church there is no salvation” in numbers 846-848.  A must-read for atheists!!

Fr Sean Wales, C.Ss.R.

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