What the Hell? Vatican caught in two minds over damnation for non-believers

The ‘infallible’ Pope’s proclamation that atheists will go to heaven has led to a rebuke from officials who declared they will go to hell. Jonathan Owen reports on the controversy

With a new Pope in place, the Catholic Church is keen to portray itself as accepting, modern and relevant. But a recent suggestion by Pope Francis that atheists could also be “redeemed” by God has led the church to return to medieval rhetoric – with an official Vatican spokesman forced to clarify that non-believers are indeed destined for hell.

The controversy began after Pope Francis went on a charm offensive last week, in an attempt to build bridges with atheists.  During a sermon at the Vatican, the first Latin American pontiff proclaimed: “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!”

The admission that Catholics do not have a monopoly on being good people was initially welcomed by secularists. “While humanists have been saying for years that one can be good without a god, hearing this from the leader of the Catholic Church is quite heartening,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.

But the mood of goodwill was short-lived.  Just a day later, in a thinly veiled rebuke of the new Pope, who took over from Pope Benedict XVI in March, Vatican spokesman Father Thomas Rosica made it abundantly clear what was really meant.

In an “explanatory note on the meaning of salvation”, he stated that merely being “good” is not enough to avoid going to hell.

On the issue of “salvation” he remarked: “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 comments come as a reminder of the Catholic Church’s uncompromising views on matters of conscience and belief, following a series of rows about it’s opposition to more temporal issues like same sex relationships, abortion, and contraception.

Commentator Hemant Mehta, in his Friendly Atheist blog, wrote: “We all knew that sense of one-ness and actions-speak-louder-than-prayers wasn’t going to last very long.” He added: “Atheists, according to Christians, are going to hell unless we accept Christ’s divinity. We already knew that. It was still an unusual and welcome gesture from the Pope to recognise that everyone, regardless of beliefs, can do good and ‘be saved’ — at least it was a step up from what we’re used to hearing.”

Other commentators questioned how the clarification issued by the Vatican was said with the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. 

Reacting to the news, the high profile atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins tweeted: “Atheists go to heaven? Nope. Sorry world, infallible pope got it wrong. Vatican steps in with alacrity.” And Sean Oakley, founder of the Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society at Reading University, said: “This latest episode is only another demonstration of how much influence the conservative lobby has within the Catholic Church.”

The controversy comes amid calls by Father Gabriele Amorth, 88, the Catholic Church’s top exorcist, for priests to be allowed to perform exorcisms without having to get special permission. He claims that Pope Francis, the first Jesuit to hold the role, carried out an exorcism on a Mexican man “possessed by four demons” in  St Peter’s Square earlier this month.

In his very first sermon on March 14, the day after he was elected, the Pope said that “he who doesn’t pray to the Lord prays to the devil”. He has gone on to mention the devil again, most recently in a sermon earlier this month when he spoke of the need for dialogue – except with Satan.

Pavan Dhaliwal, head of public affairs, 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.”

David McKeegan of The Freethinker journal, said: “We atheists were over the moon when the Pope told us that we were all going to heaven. Then when the Vatican told us that it wasn’t true, and that we were going to hell after all, we were sick as parrots.”

To Hell and back: Sin and redemption

There are many roads to hell. According to the Catholic Church a bewildering number of offences, known as ‘mortal sins’, can result in eternal damnation.

Souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend to hell “immediately after death” the church’s Catechism states.

It is a powerful threat, and one which has enabled the Catholic Church to retain more than a billion followers around the world.

So what is a mortal sin? A spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops Conference Secretariat says that the church “deliberately avoids listing grave sins”. But breaches of the Ten Commandments are traditionally accepted to be mortal sins. Also, to qualify as a mortal the sin must be “committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent”.

The good news for sinners is that they can be “redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness” in all cases with the exception of suicide.

The bad news is that if they put off repentance too long and die in a state of mortal sin they face “exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell.”

Traditional ways of going to hell

Not paying due respect to God is one of the big no nos. The breaches of the Ten Commandments to guarantee hell include not believing in God, following different religions, not keeping Sunday as a ‘holy’ day; and taking God’s name “in vain”.

Most teenagers in Britain would fall foul of the ‘Honour your father and your mother’ commandment. Having an affair, killing someone, stealing, or lying are among other things that can send you to hell, if you forget to confess in time that is.

Sex is also a dangerous area. Using contraception, deciding on an abortion, masturbating, being in a same sex relationship, and getting divorced can all see you condemned to the eternal flames.

Many Catholics also believe in the broad categories of the ‘seven deadly sins’ outlined by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century: lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and pride.

Modern ways of going to hell

The seven deadly sins have been reinvented in recent years. Now drug takers, research scientists and people who pollute the environment or exploit others can end up in the sulphurous pit. The 21st century version was revealed in 2008 by Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, who is in charge of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican department which deals with the forgiveness of sins. It includes drug abuse, genetic manipulation, morally dubious experimentation, social inequalities and social injustice, causing poverty and accumulating excessive wealth at the expense of the common good of society are all the devil’s work.

Jonathan Owen

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