“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”

Despite my ecumenical good will, I often feel like an outsider looking in when it comes to Roman Catholicism. Just when I started to warm up to Benedict XVI, he goes and retires. Now we have this new guy, and who knows what to make of him? Last week, in a homily, he said something that even the most liberal United Methodist bishop wouldn’t say—O.K., that’s probably not true, but still… He said the following:

“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! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And 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. 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.”

While I’m gratified to know that Francis believes that “not just Catholics” have been redeemed, I worry that he sees no distinction between—I don’t know—a deeply committed Protestant and an atheist! Oh well…

The larger issue is the apparent universalism implied by this statement. He simply can’t believe what his words seem to say and rise to the first rank of the Catholic Church. So he must mean something else. Understandably, his words have caused some embarrassment among Catholics like apologist Scott Hahn, who thought he had left all that squishy liberal Protestant squeamishness about judgment and hell behind when he swam the Tiber, as they say. (Since this source is secondhand, it’s possible Hahn didn’t write what was attributed to him. Let’s assume he did.)

Hahn says that the pope meant to say, first, that Christ’s atoning death was effectual for everyone who will receive it through faith: “Christ didn’t die to save only Catholics/Christians, but everybody (even atheists).”

This is actually what I assume Francis meant, too. As an Arminian who strongly disagrees with the “L” (limited atonement) of the Calvinist TULIP, I obviously agree.

But Hahn’s third point puts the most generous spin possible on the pope’s words: “Since all are redeemed by Christ—potentially, at least—we should be looking for ways to build bridges with them in order to actualize that redemptive potential, by showing them that whatever truth and goodness they embrace comes from—and leads to—Christ.”

Potentially, at least”? “Redemptive potential”? Where do you see “potential” in the pope’s plain words? It’s hard to reconcile Hahn’s interpretation with this strangely emphatic paragraph. I realize a spoken homily doesn’t include exclamation points, but notice where they occur in the Vatican transcript above. It’s clear the pope is saying that everyone (“Everyone!”) has already been redeemed (past tense). And it’s because they’ve already been redeemed that they possess the power to do good—just like any Catholic.

Other Catholic defenders (at least in comments sections of blogs I read) have said that the pope is using redemption in a very technical sense as distinguished from salvation—to be redeemed isn’t the same thing as to be saved or justified or whatever. I know a thing or two about Christian theology; I’ve never heard of this distinction before. But, again, I’m Protestant. I’m an outsider looking in. The Bible makes no such distinction.

2 thoughts on ““You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means””

  1. Wow! The Pope really said that? Sounds like a Unitarian or Universalist rather than a Christian! If you get any more reports like that, I hope you will post them too.

    1. That’s what he said. It has caused some handwringing among many Catholics. Whether he was ignorant or sloppy in his choice of words, who knows? I don’t think he’s a universalist. His predecessor, a first-rate theologian, would never have said that.

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