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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketer

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Ideal candidates for the role m...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Communications Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 6-month part-time contract (24 hours a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Purchasers

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific