A couple of weeks ago Pope Francis stated during the homily of his morning mass that all people, even atheists, can ascend to heaven if they fulfill their duty to do good. “Just do good and we’ll find a meeting point.” he said. The tolerance and embracement implied in his comments are a departure from his predecessor, Benedict, who took a more conservative and narrow stance on people outside the Catholic faith. Francis’ words were interpreted by believers and non-believers alike as a positive sign for the future of the Church, insofar as it seemed to discard some of the more intransigent and exclusory rhetoric of times past.
Unsurprisingly, just a week after Francis’ benevolent remarks, Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesperson, countered the Pope’s inclusion of non-Catholics and non-believers by saying:“All salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body. Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her.”
Or perhaps more tersely: “Just what do you think you’re doing, Holiness? Atheists are bound for the inferno!”
So much for infallibility.
The politics are discernible. The Holy Mother Church doesn’t want the head of Christendom telling the faithful that they can circumvent the collection plate and still attain salvation. This isn’t about atheists, this is about remaining relevant. Even still, I find this exchange amusing for myriad reasons.
I’d give just about anything to be a fly on a Vatican wall, listening to the Pope and his minions debate, without irony, which fellow humans are eligible for “saving”. The thought of old men audaciously deliberating the after-life destination of us all, is something I find great humor in pondering; especially when they’re willing to overlook the majority of the world’s population because they are “willfully evading Catholic dogma” as the Vatican statement implies. This means that people born into Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Protestant, and irreligious cultures and families- if cognizant of the Catholic Church- are at odds with God and therefore cannot enter heaven, unless they convert. So if you’re a Sunni Muslim in Bahrain and you’re introduced to Catholicism by learning of the Crusades, you’re expected to understand that the Church is the one true path to God, and that if you do not become a Catholic you cannot be saved. Perfectly reasonable right? Just abandon your entire cultural heritage and everything you’ve ever known, and all is well. No big deal.
What are these men even debating?
If you think about it, they are arguing over a fairy land. And not whether that fairly land exists, and if so, what evidence we have to reinforce that claim, no. They are asserting this fairy land definitely exists, and that they also can determine who can travel there and how the path is properly traversed. This is akin to someone telling you that Zeus and Apollo are real and that they not only know where Mt. Olympus is, but if you believe what they say, they can guide you there. Just how credulous do they think we are? Pretty goddamn credulous apparently. And guess what? They’re right to think so. Because who would treat claims like this seriously, if these statements were being made outside of religion?
Picture the scene: an all male panel, ensconced in their own self-worth, obstinately quarreling over a fictional place. A FICTIONAL PLACE! Envision them in their flowing robes, many feeling death’s shadow creeping toward them with greater and greater celerity, telling their “truth” like Shakespeare’s idiot, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And yet even though we all possess the facility to rationally deconstruct these statements in this very way, because it is the Pope, the Vatican, and religion, this divergence is perceived to be meaningful.
The fits of laughter within must be unceasing. At least I hope so. That’s what I’d do if I was involved in the continuation of one of the world’s most enduring cons. But, knowing religion like I do, it’s safe to assume that this fatuous and illusory conflict is being argued with stoic solemnity. These men believe wholeheartedly in the necessity of this debate. Unless of course I’m mistaken, and the aforementioned politics are really what’s driving this internal friction, in which case the front of doctrinal nuance is actually a relief in a strange way. If nothing else it would mean they are aware of just how absurd this narrative really is.
As an atheist, I want to know! Which is it? Papal advocacy for my heavenly inclusion, or am I destined for an eternity in the underworld? Patience is a gift I’ve never received but I suppose I’ll have to endure the suspense.
I like to think they have agreed to settle this argument with an epic game of Papal Guitar Hero, and the Pope encores with “Stairway to Heaven” for the win. But then all of the Cardinals get upset because he didn’t check his infallibility at the door, which the rules demand. That’s clearly cheating. “Damn it!” the Pope says. “Oh well, more room for us.” And the room erupts with laughter.