PHILADELPHIA (Christian Examiner) – During his final address to an American audience in Philadelphia, Pope Francis warned his church against holding to a "narrow" faith that excludes outsiders, different types of families, and people from other religions.
The exhortation is the latest in a long line of discourses where the pope has signaled – sometimes through veiled references to current policy debates – a greater willingness to dialog about issues such as homosexuality, the makeup of the family, and the redemption of those outside of the church, including atheists.
In 2013, newspapers worldwide reported that Pope Francis said atheists would go to heaven if they do good and even if they don't believe in Jesus Christ. The statement came from an interview the pope did with the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica.
In the interview, Pope Francis, "You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don't believe and who don't seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is a fundamental thing – that God's mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience."
In another instance, he said that all men were created in God's image and he commands all men to do good for others. Some may object that the person doing good is not Catholic, but Pope Francis said God "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."
Jesus encountered hostility from people who did not accept what he said and did. For them, his openness to the honest and sincere faith of many men and women who were not part of God's chosen people seemed intolerable. The disciples, for their part, acted in good faith. But the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles, threatens the authenticity of faith. Hence, it must be vigorously rejected.
Catholics, however, quickly walked that statement back, saying Pope Francis was teaching nothing new and that newspapers had failed to understand the difference between "redemption" and "salvation." In Catholic doctrine, especially since Vatican II, the church has taught that Christ died universally, redeeming humanity.
That salvation, however, can be rejected, according to the Catholic Church. Faith, it says, is required for salvation.
"Grace is necessary to advance beyond natural virtue to bring the soul to salvation. The Pope does not say atheists being good on their own will be saved. He says they, like all men, are redeemed by Christ's death and their good works are the starting place where we can meet with them – the implication being 'meet with them in an encounter that leads eventually to faith in Christ,'" Friar Dwight Longenecker wrote.
The interview with La Repubblica was later removed from the Vatican's website after concerns about what the pontiff said created a stir within the church.
In the address to the World Meeting of Families this weekend, Pope Francis commented on the fact that Jesus's disciples were rebuked for once "prophesying, speaking God's word, without a mandate."
"In the Gospel, John tells Jesus that the disciples had stopped someone from casting out evil spirits in the name of Jesus. Here is the surprise: Moses and Jesus both rebuke those closest to them for being so narrow!" He said.
"Jesus encountered hostility from people who did not accept what he said and did. For them, his openness to the honest and sincere faith of many men and women who were not part of God's chosen people seemed intolerable. The disciples, for their part, acted in good faith. But the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles, threatens the authenticity of faith. Hence, it must be vigorously rejected."
Pope Francis instead said he believes in a broad working of the Spirit of God, who generously "scatters the seeds of His presence in our world."
"To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not 'part of our group,' who are not 'like us,' is a dangerous temptation. Not only does it block conversion to faith; it is a perversion of faith."
Pope Francis said the church is challenged by the Spirit to do away with "sterile divisions" in the human family, such as those that afflict families "beyond our borders" – perhaps a reference to the current migrant crisis in Europe and North America. He called on his audience to be "open to the miracles of love for the sake of all the families of the world, and thus overcome the scandal of a narrow, petty love, closed in on itself, impatient of others."
Forces outside of the church are pushing Pope Francis to be more inclusive of families made up of same-sex couples and their adopted children. In fact, they seized on a comment the pontiff made in 2013, when he said of gay people:
"When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem ... they're our brothers."
Pope Francis, however, has repeatedly said the Catholic Church views marriage only as a union of man and a woman. In January in the Philippines, for instance, he said during an outdoor mass that the church is facing forces that seek to "disfigure" God's design for the family.
On Sept. 28, he also said government workers maintain their religious liberty rights to refuse licensing same-sex marriages, a clear affirmation of Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed for not issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.
Still, some say the pontiff is sending mixed signals.
While speaking at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Pope Francis said the "gospel of the family" should be proclaimed as good news and an encouragement for young people to marry. Without defining marriage, he also said, "A Christianity which 'does' little in practice, while incessantly 'explaining' its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced."
That comment was taken by the Huffington Post as a "concrete" reference to same-sex marriage.
"Anyone who wants to bring into this world a family which teaches children to be excited by every gesture aimed at overcoming evil – a family which shows the Spirit is alive and at work – will encounter our gratitude and our appreciation. Whatever the family, people, region, or religion to which they belong," Pope Francis said in Philadelphia.
The full text of Pope Francis's final address can be found here.