Tell the devil to go to hell,” good advice given to me by a priest who heard my confession at St. Mary’s Cathedral. I was a student at Queen’s University and practicing Roman Catholic in the 1980s. My confessor was speaking figuratively, of course. Neither he nor I believed to “tell the devil to go to hell” involves addressing the creature sporting horns, a tail and cloven hooves. The devil, in the context of our discussion, was a metaphor for humanity’s evils. My confessor told me that I should heed the dictates of my conscience to choose to good and avoid doing evil. What made me think of this was Pope Francis’s thoughts in a sermon, in which he intimated that atheists are redeemed. That is, they do not face damnation when they choose to do good and avoid doing evil. This sermon raises an interesting point. I understood that in practicing Roman Catholicism, redemption and sanctification are granted via the grace of God through faith in Christ. I am no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, though not an atheist. I am a Deist. I listen to the dictates of my conscience in trying to do good and avoid doing evil, in effect telling the devil to go to hell. And until hearing the news of Pope Francis’ homily, understood, from the perspective of Catholic teaching, I am putting my soul at risk of damnation.
What Pope Francis said in the sermon he delivered on May 22, 2013, was:
The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… 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. (as cited in Vatican Radio)
While it may look as though Pope Francis is charting new territory in Catholic teaching, his statement is consistent with the reforms introduced to the Roman Catholic Church in Vatican II. Atheism was discussed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and the thoughts shared by Pope Francis in his sermon are in keeping with the consensus that emerged from the Ecumenical Council. The publication from the Council, Gaudium et spes, specifies:
Noting with approval that there is a steadily growing respect for people of other religions (a. 73), the Council attempts to conduct a respectful dialogue with atheists. Atheism is one of the most serious problems of our age (a. 19). The word atheism is used to cover a number of different attitudes and approaches (a. 19). Atheism arises from different causes, and believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for the atheism of others, concealing rather than revealing the authentic face of God (a. 19). Atheism often reflects a desire to be totally independent of God, so that humans can be an end unto themselves (a. 20). Atheism can also result from the anticipation of human liberation solely through economic and social efforts, while viewing religion as an obstacle because it arouses hope for a deceptive future life (a. 20). Atheism raises weighty questions, which should be examined seriously (a. 21). The remedy to atheism is a proper presentation and living out of our faith (a. 21). There must be dialogue so that believers and unbelievers can work together for a better world (a. 21).
Church teaching since Vatican II took a conciliatory stance toward atheists. But you can be sure that while redemption is not ruled out for atheists, make no mistake; Pope Francis prefers they embrace Christianity.
The notion that redemption is a possibility for those who do good and avoid doing evil, even if they reject Christianity, makes me think of Goethe’s Faust. In Goethe’s telling of the legend, Faust not only rejects Christianity but makes a bargain with Mephistopheles (the devil). Faust agrees to trade his soul for every earthly delight imaginable and the chance to find the meaning of life. Faust was motivated, in part, by a striving to know everything there is to know. Faust is confident he can come out ahead, that Mephistopheles will be unable to keep his end of the bargain. In most versions of the legend, Faust is damned, but in Goethe’s version, he is redeemed. His soul is carried to heaven by angels who say “he who strives on and lives to strive can earn redemption still.” (as cited in Faust, Art, Religion) Faust is redeemed in his striving to know.
In a similar vein, an atheist who strives to know and who abides by the dictates of his conscience can, if what Pope Francis intimated in his sermon is true, be redeemed. The thing to remember in considering Pope Francis’s thoughts is that everyone who is endowed with a conscience and the ability to reason can discern between good and evil and should do so. I do not doubt that atheists are not particularly impressed with the threat of damnation and the promise of redemption held out by Christianity. However, I think they would find common ground with Pope Francis. Accepting that striving to know, acting in good conscience, choosing to do good and avoid doing evil in hopes of building a better world is a most worthy goal. The difference between their two points of view is for the atheist that the goal is worthy solely in its own right. As a Christian or an atheist, do your best and remember to keep “telling the devil to go to hell.”
Posted by Geoffrey