“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.”
Technically, the pope didn’t chart any new territory here, but the absence of any caveat from him that atheists also need to become sincere and contrite theists to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness has been met with concern from within the flock.
Patrick Archbold, for example, wrote, “Is it too late for me to become an atheist? Do I have sign somewhere? Pope Francis has told us that all that is needed for atheists to get to heaven is to follow their own malformed consciences. I really wish I knew this earlier. I would have avoided a lifetime of difficult Truths in favor of my conscience. My old unformed conscience, it turns out, was fairly forgiving of many things. That seems much easier.”
Taking a different approach, Jimmy Akin assured his readers that the pope did not actually say that those who do not believe in God can be saved.
In the sense that the pope didn’t use those exact works, Akin is correct, but the fact that Pope Francis didn’t use the word “saved” is irrelevant. Pope Francis encourages people who do not believe in God to follow their own conscience because obedience to (a well-formed) conscience is, according to him, the means by which one develops a contrite and sincere heart capable of receiving mercy and forgiveness. That’s what matters. That’s what salvation means: a graceful heart in loving communion with others.
As for Archbold, I would remind him that the Christian life is about living in the abundance of grace. If he really believes that salvation can be received only by those who got the right stamp on their passport and haven’t lost it or thrown it away, then he’s missing the point. The Christian life isn’t about doing the minimum. It’s about participating in the overflowing love life of love itself–emphasis on overflowing.