When Pope Francis took over the Papacy in March, when he declared that Catholics and atheists can be "precious allies … to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation." However, in saying that atheists could go to heaven last week, the pope appears to have gone too far. The Vatican has issued a statement correcting the pope's statements, citing a misunderstanding of the pope's statement.
In a message delivered Wednesday via Vatican Radio, the new pontiff, Pope Francis, called for tolerance of and support for atheists: "This commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. 'But I don't believe, Father, I am an atheist!' But do good: we will meet one another there."
The Pope continued, "The Lord has redeemed all of us … not just Catholics. Everyone!" This last statement caused a Vatican spokesperson, Rev. Thomas Rosica, to issue a corrective explaining that the pope was misunderstood, clarifying that "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."
The juxtaposition of the pope's clear statements and Rev. Rosica's correction have led some to point out that the correction goes against papal infallibility, while others, in true atheist fashion, chose to ignore the Vatican altogether. Atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins tweeted: "Atheists go to heaven? Nope. Sorry world, infallible pope got it wrong. Vatican steps in with alacrity." Pavan Dhaliwal, head of public affairs for the British Humanist Association, said: "It is of no concern to us what the Vatican thinks about the afterlife and atheists. They ought rather to focus on putting right the damage they do in this world, especially in relation to basic rights such as access to contraception and LGBT and women's rights."
Although the new pope's humanist admission that one can be good and go to Heaven without a god helps in his mission to reshape the Papacy with an emphasis on acceptance, modernity, and helping the poor, the Vatican's choice to essentially supersede the infallible pope is another sign that the Catholic Church may not yet be ready to follow Pope Francis's mission.