Atheist activists have long touted the notion that one doesn’t have to be religious to be considered a “good” person. On Wednesday, non-believers’ claims were given some credence when Pope Francis endorsed this view during Mass. Regardless of theological perspective, the pontiff said that “doing good” is a universal value that unites all of humanity. He also said that “even the atheists” have been redeemed “with the blood of Christ.”

Following the Vatican Radio report recapping Francis’ words, numerous media outlets highlighted the contents of his sermon. As a result, speculation and conversation will likely mount regarding what, exactly, it all meant.

Was he saying that non-believers, too, will inherit salvation? Or was he speaking more generally to the fact that all of humanity was saved by Jesus Christ’s actions on the cross? And then there’s the main question he attempted to answer: Are atheists really capable of being “good”?

Pope Francis Comments About Atheists, Redemption and Goodness Raise Eyebrows, Spark Conversation

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes (L) during a private audience in the pontiff’s library on May 22, 2013 at the Vatican. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

As for this latter query, Francis made it clear that, in his view, it is possible for non-Catholics — and even those with no faith at all — to do good. Using the Bible (Gospel of Mark), Francis noted that even Jesus’ disciples assumed that only they could act in accordance with God’s will, because they possessed the truth.

But Jesus corrected them and told them to allow a man outside of their group be free to act in a positive fashion.Vatican Radio explains:

Wednesday’s Gospel speaks to us about the disciples who prevented a person from outside their group from doing good. “They complain,” the Pope said in his homily, because they say, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.” The disciples, Pope Francis explains, “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation.”

Everyone, in Francis’ view, is a part of the human experience and has an inherent potential for goodness.

“The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us,” Pope Francis said, going on to provide examples. “‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him.”

Pope Francis Comments About Atheists, Redemption and Goodness Raise Eyebrows, Spark Conversation

A faithful offers a white balloon to Pope Francis at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 22, 2013. Credit: AP

By closing others out, Francis warned that believers do harm and cause unnecessary division and war. The push to do good, he claims, is in every individual’s heart and has been ingrained in mankind by the Almighty. As for redemption, the pope went on to make it clear that everyone — even atheists — has been considered and redeemed by the Lord. Here’s what he said:

“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.

Here, Francis made a plethora of important statements. To begin, he claims that, regardless of whether they accept the notion, atheists, too, have been redeemed by Christ. The very definition of redemption is, “to buy or pay off; clear by payment,” thus it appears he is speaking here about sin and goodness — issues pertaining to Christ’s crucifixion.

It does not appear as though Francis is speaking about the afterlife or salvation. Instead, he is highlighting the fact that Christ, from a theological perspective, died for all of mankind.

Beyond that, Francis calls everyone, regardless of religious views, to do good and to find common ground. Rather than railing against one another, the Catholic leader wants to see people from all perspectives come together to work for humanity.

Rather than cutting non-believers out of the mix, it appears he’s taking extra steps to make them feel welcome — a noticeable departure from other past leaders.

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