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Are There Atheists in Heaven?

It was a touching scene. After circling a massive, decrepit public-housing complex on the outskirts of Rome, Pope Francis arrived at St. Paul of the Cross Church. There, the Holy Father participated in a question-and-answer session with children from the parish. After a few kids offered up the standard questions — e.g., “How did you feel when you were elected pope?” — a young boy who had been waiting his turn tentatively approached the microphone. But he stopped short, perhaps overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment. “I can’t do it,” he said, and he began sobbing into his hands. So Francis called the boy over and encouraged him to whisper his question into his ear. When the boy, named Emanuele, approached, Francis embraced him. With their heads almost touching, they spoke privately before Emanuele returned to his seat. Here’s an account of what followed, courtesy of Catholic News Service (Apr. 27):

Pope Francis said he had asked Emanuele if he could share the boy’s question and the boy 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,'” the pope told the children. “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,” Pope Francis said.

“God is the one who says who goes to heaven,” the pope explained.

The next step in answering Emanuele’s question, he said, would be to think about what God is like and, especially, what kind of heart God has. “What do you think? A father’s heart. God has a dad’s heart. And with a dad who was not a believer, but who baptized his children and gave them that bravura [courage], do you think God would be able to leave him far from himself?”

“Does God abandon his children?” the pope asked. “Does God abandon his children when they are good?”

The children shouted, “No.”

“There, Emanuele, that is the answer,” the pope told the boy. “God surely was proud of your father, because it is easier as a believer to baptize your children than to baptize them when you are not a believer. Surely this pleased God very much.”

And just as surely, the Pope’s reply pleased Emanuele very much. As is evident from this episode, Francis has the heart of a pastor: his affable demeanor with the children, his warm embrace of a timid boy, and his concern for the sensitivities of those in his care mark him as a man who is eager to be close to his people, share in their joys and sorrows, and draw them into the sheepfold.

But — and with Francis, there’s always a but — his expansive notion of salvation is problematic. What he said about Emanuele’s father appears to contravene Catholic teaching — teaching Francis is sworn to uphold. In response to Emanuele’s question about whether his atheist father is in Heaven, Francis guided the children in the audience to the conclusion that God does not abandon “good” people, even though they don’t believe in Him, and so Emanuele’s father is not “far from” God. That, he told the boy, is your answer.

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