|The pope speaking on May 22nd|
Source: Vatican Radio
"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! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.” (emphasis added)On first reading, many media commentators assumed that the pope was asserting the possibility that atheists can be saved without having to become Christians let alone Catholics. More circumspect readings generally agree that he was not making such a blanket statement. And the next day, Thursday the 23rd, a Vatican spokesman clarified the pope's position on salvation by saying that anyone who is aware of the Catholic Church and doesn't become a Catholic “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.” (Quoted here)
What is worth noting in his speech, however, is the pope's concept of creating a "culture of encounter" between peoples of faiths and no faith. He seems to be suggesting that we have the drive to do good created in us as part of our God-given natures. We should nurture that drive in each other and use it as a point of contact for mutual understanding—for dialogue, that is. It is not clear what his ultimate goal is in encouraging a culture of encounter grounded in good works. The Thursday clarification would suggest that he still desires the incorporation of the whole of humanity into "the Church," which apparently means the Catholic Church. The hope is that he is encouraging something else, which is a culture of pluralism based on understanding growing out of dialogue with each other. Dialogue in this sense is more than discussions. It is a process of listening, learning, and reflection leading to reductions in conflict and a growth in peace.
If Pope Francis' goal is to develop a "culture of encounter" as a subtle form of Catholic evangelism, he will fail. It will become evident over time that his real agenda is aggrandizement rather than dialogue. If, however, he seeks such a culture as a way to embrace pluralism to the end that ours might be a less conflicted, more peaceful world, he could well play an important role in fostering a more dialogical international atmosphere. Time will tell.