The following is an email that I wrote to a friend and dear sister in Christ, who expressed some concerns about recent words of Pope Francis wherein he was accused of being a universalist. I thought I would publish it here to share with my family, friends, and fellow pilgrims.
Dear Ms. C,
I read a few articles on the Pope’s reported universalism, and I think the following quote from a recent sermon of his, is what has caused the brouhaha:
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.
Of all that he said in this passage I think what is most challenging with respect to the charge of universalism is where he said, “And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class!” To explain I will begin by saying that I’ve read that the emphasis of redemption in a Roman Catholic and I think Eastern Orthodox framework is on Jesus’ identification with the whole of the human race wherein his union with us, and his crucifixion and resurrection for us actually changes the status of the whole of humanity. By contrast, we Protestants when it comes to redemption tend to focus on the individual’s appropriation of the work of Christ. Another way of saying this is that Christ has won redemption for all of us. Likewise the blood of Jesus has given all of us abundant blessing, beyond what any of us deserve, and all of us, whether we know it or not, partake of those blessings. With this in mind I think that the Pope is saying that all partake of the blessing of redemption by virtue of sharing a common humanity with Christ via incarnation. The question then being whether all will partake of the full benefit of Jesus’ redeeming work such that all will be saved in the final sense of the word, by which most people usually mean that one will go to Heaven, and not go to Hell. With respect to this question, I would bet that the Pope would say that not all will be saved in that sense, that God will respect people’s freedom and will let them choose to not partake of the full benefit of Christ’s redeeming work, and that though all will have received some benefit, ulitmately some will refuse to submit to the full work of redemption and will die lost.
You will also notice that in the above passage Francis states that we all have a duty to do good. For many, particulary Protestants, the duty to do good would be heard as a command of Law, which would therefore be a work of judgment. By contrast, I think, and I admit this is speculation, that in his framework the duty comes from being a creature made in God’s image, which is itself a grace, and being a redeemed son, which is an even further grace. Again, one could fall short of this duty that is a grace, and having fallen short of this grace, one could lose the status of sonship and thereby be be lost. In this economy of grace, one could begin by fulfilling this duty as best as he or she understands, and would thereby go further into the redemptive work of Christ, a going further which would eventually require faith for the redemptive work to come to completion in one’s life, a completion which Paul, in Romans 8:23, refers to as the adoption as sons for which we eagerly await.
Having said all that I said above, I understand why many have accused Francis of being a universalist, but I think he is a nuanced thinker that speaks very pastorally, and who wants to put an emphasis on the mercy and love of God as the foundation for a call to repentance and moral renewal. Also, I think he is a person who frustrates religious expectations in a good way, and is perhaps called by God to school people in the abundance of God’s grace that frustrates such expectations. Again, I am being speculative. In the end, I continue to read him and read about him with eagerness.
Finally, I have to share that a part of me feels a bit odd, or even wrong assessing his theology. I realize that he is not perfect, that he is a man who is also in need of redemption, a fact he openly confesses, and so his theology is apt to fall short in some ways. That said, I think it is a kind of Protestant pride that says, “Hmmm I’m gonna size this man up and identify where he falls short.” I guess I say this, because we Protestants tend to be suspicious of heirarchy and religious authority except for the authority of Scripture, which in some measure is right, but a bit simplistic, and in reality tends to work itself out in our lives in such a way that we really respect the religious authority of those who read the Scriptures in the same way we read the Scriptures. Having said this, I realize I have opened up a whole other can of worms, but I will save that for a latter conversation.
Peace be with you.