Proof positive that Pope Francis is a heretic! He just proclaimed that atheists can be saved by following their consciences! Moral relativism, indifferentism, Pelagainism! This is the inauguration of a new religion! What’s the use in being Catholic if atheists can go to heaven and not even have to believe in God??
Or so the recent internet tirade has gone for the last couple of days from traditionalists, many of whom are even my friends.
However, is this assessment fair? Readers here will know that I, for one, am a bit disappointed with Pope Francis, but I can’t call him a heretic based on what he wrote to the atheist Italian journalist, Eugenio Scalfari
. I will admit that what Pope Francis wrote was scandalously vague, ambiguous, and more than a little incoherent in parts, and the translation that I read hopefully does not reflect the syntax accurately, otherwise, I’m sure Scalfari, an excellent writer despite what you might think of his ideology, probably tossed this letter in the waste basket with a chuckle and a smirk.
On the other hand, traditional Catholics across the internet have had a much more visceral, knee jerk reaction to this letter, and for the most part this reaction is born out of a hubris that does not respect the theological method or critical analysis. Our dislike for this Pope and his methods can’t compel the traditional Catholic to intellectually sloppiness, disrespect for method and research, or to hurling false accusations. Unfortunately, calling the Pope a heretic for what he wrote in this letter will probably garner more ridicule for traditionalism than anything else. Hopefully I can help to curve my friends down a more reasonable route other than the one many of my friends have turned down, the route of hurling false accusations to at the man, who, whether we like it or not, sits on the Throne of St. Peter.
The problem text from the Holy Father is as follows:
First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. Given that – and this is fundamental – God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience. In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.
Granted, this text is incoherent and intentionally ambiguous, but for the sake of charity, let us suspend judgment on this matter. Let’s attempt to diagram out these sentences so we can come to an analysis.
*The question is: Does God forgive unbelievers?
*The answer given by the Holy Father is: God’s mercy is limitless for those who ask for it with contrition and a sincere heart.
*Analysis: the Holy Father seems to be saying that God’s mercy is limited by human reception. The human asking for it must be contrite and sincere. Let’s assume that the Holy Father means to express that God’s mercy is limitless, but man can limit himself in his reception of mercy, due to his free will. If this is the case, which I’m sure it is, the Holy Father is saying: no, unbelievers cannot be forgiven by God, because unbelievers cannot ask for mercy, sincerely, from a God they don’t actually believe exists.
Others have interpreted this differently, but I believe mine is a more accurate analysis of this portion of the Holy Father’s answer. Is the Holy Father clear or coherent? No. Is he intentionally ambiguous? Yes. It is obvious that the Holy Father doesn’t want to come out and tell the truth bluntly, so he, like a politician, talks around the blunt truth, but, and this is important, he avoids denying the truth. Thus there is nothing outright heretical in what the Holy Father writes here.
The next part of his answer needs to be separated out. In the actual passage, two thoughts are separated by a comma, but they are in fact two entirely different treatments. So far, even though the Holy Father hasn’t expressed the truth clearly, he hasn’t proclaimed an error, either. However, there are many people contending that this next thought constitutes the error of moral relativism or Pelagainism or indifferentism or all three at the same time.
Let’s look carefully at how the Holy Father continues his answer: the issue for unbelievers is that they follow their conscience; unbelievers must follow their conscience to decide between good and evil.
Some people have attempted to assert that the Holy Father is saying that as long as atheists do good, they will be saved. This isn’t, however, what the Holy Father says. Pope Francis says, simply, that atheists must follow their consciences to discern between good and evil, and this is a perfectly orthodox Catholic teaching.
For when the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law; these having not the law are a law to themselves: Who shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them, and their thoughts between themselves accusing, or also defending one another… (Rom 2:14-15)
At first God deemed it sufficient to inscribe the natural law, or Decalogue, upon the hearts of men” (St. Irenæus of Lyons, Adversus Hæreses, Book IV, Chapter 15).
God has imprinted the natural law on the heart of every man; this forms the fundamental rule of human actions.
The word law comes from the Latin “lex”, which in turn is derived from the Latin verb “ligare”, which means “to bind”. A moral law, therefore, is that which binds the actions of men, either by inducing him to act, or restraining him from acting. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, a law is a dictate of practical reason emanating from the ruler who governs. Law, therefore, is dependent upon some authority, and the legitimacy of the authority dictates the legitimacy of the law. It has always been the teaching of the Catholic Church that the existence of Divine Providence can be proven by the light of natural reason alone, and that this Divine Providence must rule the whole universe by a Divine Reason.
Aquinas states further:
It is evident that all things partake somewhat of the eternal law, in so far as, namely, form its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and tis participation of the enteral law in the rational creature is called the natural law. (ST, I-II, Q91, Art. 2)
It is evident, then, that all rational creatures are subject to the natural law. It is not one option among many, but, as a law, it binds all rational creatures, or, in other words, is imposed on all men. The characters of the natural law can be obscured by the rational errors due to fallen human nature in individual circumstances, but cannot be eradicated entirely. This is because the natural law is not a construct of human reason, but is an expression of the Will of God. The role of human reason is to make us acquainted with, e.g. to help us recognize, the natural law in individual given circumstances, as St. Thomas explains:
The human reason cannot have a full participation of the dictate of the Divine Reason, but according to its own mode, and imperfectly. Consequently, as on the part of the speculative reason, by a natural participation of Divine Wisdom, there is in us the knowledge of certain general principles, but not proper knowledge of each single truth, so as that contained I the Divine Wisdom; so too, on the part of the practical reason, man has a natural participation of the eternal law, according to certain general principles, but not as regards the particular determinations of individual cases, which are, however, contained in the eternal law. Hence the need for human reason to proceed further to sanction them by law… (ST, I-II, Q91, Art. 3)
Human reason is not, of itself, the rule of things: but the principles impressed on it by nature, are general rules and measures of all things relating to human conduct, whereof the natural reason is the rule and measure, although it is not the measure of things that are from nature. (Ibid.)
The dictates of the natural law, argues St. Thomas Aquinas, are:
*Induce man to render homage to Almighty God.
*Restrict man from injuring himself.
*Restrict man from doing to others what he would not have others do to him.
*And from these certain inferences directly follow, which comprise the Decalogue, excluding only the precept to keep holy the Sabbath (Catechism of the Council of Trent), as that precept can only be known by revealed divine law. (ST, I-II, Q. 94, Art. 2)
To summarize, the natural law, as participation of the eternal law which governs all reality, is binding on all men; it is not a construct of human reason, but is impressed on the intellect, thus all men with the use of intellect know and are bound to the natural law; the role of reason, both speculative and practical, is to acquaint man with the application of the natural law in individual given circumstances.
It is in this last case that we are presented with the role of conscience. Conscience, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, “according to the very nature of the word, implies the relation of knowledge to something: for conscience may be resolved into ‘cum alio scientia,’ i.e. knowledge applied to an individual case” (ST, I-I, Q. 79, Art 13)
Thus, the conscience, as an application of knowledge to an individual moral act, is not a power or a faculty or an object; rather, it is a human act. Conscience is the application of knowledge, which is a practical act of the intellect, regarding the known law to an individual moral act. Like all human acts, the conscience is always impelled towards the perceived good (Ibid.).
Conscience is manifested before an action, speaking either encouragement or warning regarding a moral action. Conscience is manifested after a moral action by filling us with either peace regarding the moral act in question or disquiet, appertaining to whether or not the moral action was good or evil. In this latter respect we can call conscience good or bad. A good conscience that follows upon a good moral act sweetens a man’s disposition, making him cheerful and peaceful. A bad conscience, which follows an evil moral act, is marked by morose, disquiet, regret, all of which embitters and robs life of joy. The pleasures of an evil act are fleeting because of the bitterness caused by a bad conscience.
However, there are qualitative degrees of conscience, which make a man’s conscience more or less effective when operative prior to a moral act.
A man’s conscience may be either tender or deadened.
A tender conscience is one that shrinks from all sin. The saints for example had tender consciences, from which they dreaded to offend God in even the least of matters.
A deadened conscience gives no heed to wrongdoing. Men with deadened consciences pay no attention to their crimes, ignore the warnings of their conscience, and ignore, principally by distraction (Blasé Pascal, Pensees, Section II), the effects of their bad conscience in the wake of their crimes. Their distractions, mere trifles, replace the dictates of their conscience, thus they strain the gnats and then swallow the camels (Matt. 23:24).
Another distinction in qualitative degrees of conscience must be made in regards to, at one extreme the lax (or unscrupulous) conscience and, at the other extreme, the timid (or over-scrupulous) conscience. Unlike the first qualitative distinction, in this case both extremes should be avoided.
A lax conscience persuades a man that an evil act isn’t as serious as it is, and thus impels him to take the warnings of conscience with little or no seriousness before the act, and to assuage his bad conscience by convincing himself that his crime was understandable given his weak human nature. To err is human, after all. A lax conscience makes a man deaf to the warnings of conscience, and compels him to lay aside conscience altogether, both prior to and after an evil act.
A timid conscience, on the other hand, causes a man to see sin and crime where there is no sin or crime. This is not to be confused with what some people call scrupulosity, which is often associated with mental disorders such as chronic depression or anxiety. Rather a timid conscience often arises from the capital vice of pride, manifesting itself in a harsh judgment of others and one’s self.
A deadened, lax or timid conscience makes it possible for man act against his conscience, or to act against what he knows he should do (knowledge of the natural law that all men with the faculty of intellect possess) in a given circumstance regarding an individual moral act. And this is called sin. Thus to act against one’s conscience is a sin. Conversely, to heed one’s conscious in the performance of an individual good act, or in the avoidance of an individual evil act, is to act morally well, or, in other words, to do good.
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with Pope Francis telling atheists that they must follow their consciences to do good and avoid evil. That is, after all, Catholic teaching. The natural law is impressed upon all intellects, even the intellects of unbelievers, pagans, Protestants, and liberals. Faith is not a perquisite for knowing and following the natural law, or in doing good or evil. If one were to contend that a person is incapable of acting morally without faith, that without faith men are incapable of knowing right and wrong, then logically one is forced to justify some of the most heinous evil actions in history because they were perpetuated by people without faith. Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot are all culpable for their evil actions, even though none of them had faith.
On the other hand, Pope Francis, by telling Scalfari to follow his conscience, is telling the atheist to also go and give homage to the Almighty God. Belief in God is, after all, not only reasonable, but also necessary for the first dictate of the natural law inscribed upon the intellect s of all men. Perhaps that is the Holy Father’s intention, but we simply can’t know because he doesn’t express this outright.
This leads us to what may be the real problem with the Pope’s letter. The problem isn’t that the Holy Father positively expresses some error or outright denies a truth of the faith. The problem could be in what the Holy Father fails to say. Atheists can and do know right from wrong. They can act morally by following their conscience, but they obviously aren’t in all matters, because they lack belief in God.
As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, unbelief can be taken in two ways: by way of pure negation, i.e. someone who simply does not have faith; or by way of opposition to the faith, i.e. the man who refuses to hear the faith and despises it (ST II-II, Q. 10, Art. 1). In the latter case, unbelief is a sin. St. Thomas writes:
Unbelief, in so far as it is a sin, arises from pride, through which man is unwilling to subject his intellect to the rules of faith, and to the sound interpretation of the Fathers. (Ibid.)
Are there many atheists who refuse to hear the faith and despises it out of pride, a pride born out of protecting a sinful lifestyle? I think it is a reasonable assumption that many atheists fit into this category. The Holy Father certainly isn’t required to point this out, but in doing so the Vatican probably wouldn’t have had to issue a clarification the next day expressing that the Catholic Church still teaches that membership in the Church of Christ is required for salvation.
In the former, case, unbelief taken as a pure negation, that is those who haven’t had the opportunity to hear the faith, and thus can’t accept it or despises it, there is no sin in their unbelief. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains, their unbelief bears the character of punishment, because “such like ignorance of Divine things is a result of the sin of our first parent” (Ibid.). Such unbelievers, if they are damned, are not damned due to a sin of unbelief, but on account of other sins, “which cannot be taken away without faith” (ibid.). The Holy Father fails to mention unbelief in this manner as being a punishment, or the miraculously difficult task of not sinning in a grave matter against the natural law while suffering invincible ignorance. The Holy Father doesn’t mention how astonishingly uncharitable it would be for Catholics to allow people to persist in a state of unbelief taken as pure negation, allowing these people to live without hope of forgiveness for sins against the natural law.
This constant ambiguity and the sowing of confusion are the marks of the post-Vatican II churchmen, and the only charitable explanation I have for it is that Pope Francis wants so badly to draw men like Scalfari to the truth that he feels he has to obscure those aspects of the truth that are politically incorrect to our culturally amoral western society. (I have other, far less charitable, speculations about Pope Francis… but…)Will this strategy work? Our church leaders have been pursuing this path for over a half century, and the only thing to result has been confusion and crisis in the Church Militant, and a world that continues to spiral down further and further away from God. If Pope Francis continues this disastrous approach to the world, the only thing that will result is more confusion and a widening of the present crisis of faith afflicting the Church Militant. It is a long shot that Pope Francis could convince someone like Scalfari to recognize Divine Providence with such an incoherent argument, but even if he does, how many Catholic souls will be lost due to the confusion it will cause?
But there is more going on here than the same old recklessness. There’s an equal amount of recklessness on the part of internet traditionalists. When traditionalists go out on a limb and falsely accuse the Holy Father of heresy, all the while disrespecting the theological method, eschewing research and study for intuitions based on a dislike for Pope Francis or his methods, the traditionalist also makes his own significant contribution to this confusion and this present crisis of faith, and that probably should stop as soon as possible.