Two thousand years of history has given the Catholic church some pretty controversial popes. In fact, there are enough of them to even inspire a BuzzFeed listicle, “8 Of History’s Most Controversial Popes.” Pope Clement VII courted opprobrium by growing a beard while Pope Alexander VI allegedly enjoyed bunga bunga parties in the papal palace.
The current pontiff, Pope Francis, kind of fits somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. His ersatz version of Christianity combined with his frequent politicizing has worried plenty of the faithful, so much so that Catholic cardinals and scholars have issued a document known as a “filial Correction” to the pope as a rebuke — something that hasn’t been done since the Middle Ages.
Il Papa doesn’t seem to be bothered by much of this, however. In fact, he was courting controversy again this week in Rome when he told a young boy that his atheist father was going to heaven.
“After circling a massive, crumbling public housing complex on the outskirts of Rome, Pope Francis had an emotional encounter with the neighborhood’s children,” the National Catholic Reporter said of the pope’s Sunday visit. One of the children, Emanuele, had just lost his father.
“If only we could all cry like Emanuele when we have an ache in our hearts like he has,” Francis told the children. “He was crying for his father and had the courage to do it in front of us because in his heart there is love for his father.”
Emanuele whispered his question to the pope, who then asked if he could share it with the rest of the children. Emanuele agreed.
“‘A little while ago my father passed away. He was a nonbeliever, but he had all four of his children baptized. He was a good man. Is dad in heaven?’”
“How beautiful to hear a son say of his father, ‘He was good,’” Francis said. “And what a beautiful witness of a son who inherited the strength of his father, who had the courage to cry in front of all of us. If that man was able to make his children like that, then it’s true, he was a good man. He was a good man.
“That man did not have the gift of faith, he wasn’t a believer, but he had his children baptized. He had a good heart,” he continued. “God is the one who says who goes to heaven.”
Pope Francis is right on one thing: God is the one — the only one — who says who goes to heaven. Also, it’s worth noting that a crumbling housing complex on the outskirts of Rome probably isn’t the best place to dispense harsh theological truths to young, fatherless boys. Theologically, however, the pope is on somewhat mushy ground that sounds conspicuously like universal salvation.
The biblical perspective is very clear on this. Most every Christian could recite John 3:16-18 by heart: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
That’s a difficult pill to swallow, especially for a young boy. However, do lies help? In the short term, Emanuele will no doubt feel better. Will that comfort fade once he reaches maturity and realizes the Vicar of Christ was merely placating him?
Some Catholics, however, would argue that there is an argument in catechism for the salvation of Emanuele’s father, and it’s not based on universalism. They would argue Catholicism specifically provides certain mechanisms through which those who don’t profess belief in the Almighty can still enter the Kingdom of Christ.
What do you think? Scroll down to comment below!