Francis, Benedict XVI, and Atheists

Lots of commentary and debate flying around the internet on Pope Francis’ recent homily in which he argued all people are redeemed through Jesus. People are seeing this message as further evidence that Francis is distinguishing himself from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who was seen as much more strident and exclusive. Francis is viewed as taking the Roman Catholic Church in an altogether new direction. To that I say, not so fast.

Francis is not saying anything outside the tradition of the Catholic Church. This takes some parsing, so bear with me. In Christian theology, there are generally three major views on who gets saved. (The fancy word for discussing salvation is soteriology.) First we have universalism, in which Jesus saves everyone. Second we have exclusivism, in which Jesus saves only those who respond to his call to follow him and confess he is Lord. Finally, we have inclusivism, in which all who follow Jesus will be saved, but Jesus may also save some who were unable to hear the gospel message or who never confessed he is Lord, yet still embodied many of his teachings. The Catholic Church has held to an inclusive view of salvation.

While the Catholic Church has had an inclusive view with regard to eternal salvation, it has had an exclusive view of which is the true Church. (The fancy word for discussing the church is ecclesiology.) This is where many see Francis and Benedict splitting, but I do not think that is the case. Benedict spent a fair amount of his papacy emphasizing the essential nature of the Roman Catholic Church as the one, true Church. He said communities of followers of Christ outside the Catholic fellowship were not true churches, even though the Holy Spirit may show up in those groups from time to time. This was good, old-fashioned, Roman Catholic ecclesiology. It merely sounded harsh in our culture. (I’ll note that as a Protestant, I couldn’t disagree with Benedict more on this point, but he wasn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said about my folk for centuries.)

Put together the inclusive soteriology and the exclusive ecclesiology and you have a view that says Jesus death can redeem everyone, but if you want to be sure that you have received that redemption as well as experience the full blessing of that redemption in this life, you should be in good standing in the Roman Catholic Church. From what I’ve read, Francis focused on the inclusive soteriology without touching much on the exclusive ecclesiology. If anything, he offered a subtle correction to Catholics who want to extend the Catholic Church’s exclusive ecclesiology to matters of salvation. That is, there is a temptation to say, “If you’re not in our Church, then Jesus hasn’t saved you,” and Francis was pushing back against that. The bits of Francis’ homily that have surfaced look incredible. I love the idea that by participating in good works people find common ground. Further, since we are made for good works (Ephesians 2.10), by doing good, we grow closer to God. So far, I’ve been very impressed with the new pope.

There are clear differences between Francis and Benedict and we won’t know the full extent of those differences for a while. We need to see more of what shape Francis’ ministry and leadership will take. As of now, however, the differences between the two popes is more a matter of style and understanding that the method by which a message is delivered is just as important as the message itself. Francis is seen as more compassionate and caring for the poor in his choices to wash the feet of juveniles in detention, opting for a simpler apartment at the Vatican, and having more modest dress. Benedict’s teachings on care for the poor were just as robust as anything Francis has said, but Benedict never fully appreciated the importance of nonverbal communication. He could articulate the deep Christian tradition to love the “least of these,” but he never seemed to grasp that wearing designer loafers undermined his powerful words.

Benedict is an academic who, like so many other academics, had a hard time communicating to non-academics. I had to read a bit of Benedict’s (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) theological writings in seminary and he is a first-rate theologian whose works will have great influence for several decades. These works were not written for a general audience, however, and he was never fully successful making the switch to a general audience. He could not connect with people outside the academy with the same ease that Francis can or John Paul II could. Benedict never figured out how to make a pithy sound byte and opted for careful, nuanced, and full arguments. In a sound byte world, it is easy to take bits of full arguments out of context. His analytical style came off as cold. He certainly didn’t have the charisma to work a crowd like John Paul II or Francis.