Posted by: gmscan | September 19, 2013

Is Pope Francis a Calvinist?

The media was ablaze for a few days with headlines like this –

Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven

Pope Francis tells atheists to abide by their own consciences

Pope Francis: God’s mercy extends to atheists and agnostics

The Pope had written a lengthy letter to the founder of an Italian newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, in reply to a series of editorials the paper had published. It is a very long and thoughtful letter, but the media (as it will) ignored all but one paragraph, that states —

“You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.”

The secular media was triumphant – “See, we don’t have to believe in God to go to Heaven!” Which raises a host of puzzlements:

  • Why would an atheist or agnostic care about being forgiven by a God that doesn’t exist?
  • Why would they care about going to a Heaven that doesn’t exist?
  • How could they “go to him with a sincere and contrite heart” if they don’t believe in Him?
  • Plus, I’m not sure being forgiven of a sin is quite the same thing as a ticket to Heaven.

But orthodox Catholics were in a tizzy over the whole idea. Some called the Pope a heretic, others tried to explain his troubling position. In the latter camp was David Werling, who wrote a blog post, “Please stop calling Pope Francis a heretic over the Scalfari Letter.” 

Mr. Werling’s item was a long and tortured essay on the meaning of “conscience” with a host of quotes from Thomas of Aquinas, and concludes that the only conscience worth obeying is one that includes a belief on God —

“Pope Francis, by telling Scalfari to follow his conscience, is telling the atheist to also go and give homage to the Almighty God. Belief in God is, after all, not only reasonable, but also necessary for the first dictate of the natural law inscribed upon the intellects of all men. Perhaps that is the Holy Father’s intention, but we simply can’t know because he doesn’t express this outright.”

I have a rather different thought – the Pope is a closet Calvinist. Calvinists say that salvation is foreordained from the beginning of time. We cannot earn it. Or as Philip Yancey says, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” Similarly, faith is a gift from God. We do not choose to be faithful or not. Or, as the Westminster Confession puts it –

5. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.

6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected being fallen in Adam are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

(Westminster Confession, Chapter III, 6.018-6.019)

The Pope has no idea who is to be saved and who is not. And just because someone is an unbeliever today, does not mean he will be an unbeliever tomorrow. He will be given the gift of faith when God chooses, not when you or I or the Pope chooses. That this person is a sinner makes no difference, whatsoever. We are all sinners. Once we are given the gift or faith, we (try to) repent of those sins. But it would be silly to expect someone who has not yet received faith to repent of his sins, or even to acknowledge that he is sinning. Faith comes first, repentance follows.

Certainly my own experience confirms all this. I was not given the gift of faith until I was 62 years old. But as Jesus explained in his parable of the workers in the field, it doesn’t matter that I came late to the party, my reward is the same as those who have had faith their entire lives.

I suppose the Pope may be justly accused of violating the traditional understanding of the Roman Catholic faith — that Good Works will earn you a place in Glory. But in so doing, he has also joined the Reformation. Praise be to God!



  1. Greg,

    The exhortation to follow one’s conscience could also be based on the opening assumptions by Paul in his letter to the Romans:

    “8 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

    If “that which is known about God is evident within them” how else is it manifest except in their conscience? People know what God requires of them even if they do not believe in God. People know what is right and what is wrong.

    It is because they do not even follow their conscience that God is justified in delivering them His wrath, and therefore they are without excuse and in need of salvation.

    (Psychologists and Psychiatrists do struggle to find an explanation for the human sense of morality in the absence of religion. They have some ideas, but it is still a mystery. The point is, even >they< admit human beings have an innate sense of morality)

    So I think this Pope is speaking in the Prophetic voice when he says to some one who says to him "what if I don't believe in all this mambo jumbo" to follow their own conscience. The second sentence implied by the first is "when you fail and find no matter how hard you try you can't seem to do it, come back, and let's continue this conversation"

    This Pope gets the Gospel.


    • Yep, I agree Jodie. C.S. Lewis had a lot to say about this, too. Man seems to have an innate sense of right and wrong that transcends culture. Political scientists call it “natural law.” Even British common law was based on the idea of “discovering” what the law is — rather than creating law. If one doesn’t believe in Scripture, what else is there to fall back on?

      Of course, there are those who have no conscience, or a warped conscience. The standard for criminal insanity is being able to tell right from wrong. But it is fascinating that even the most atheistic among us seem to agree that there is a right and a wrong that is outside of our personal desires.

  2. I think the pope was just saying that it is not his place to judge others, that is God’s job. Secular journalists want to focus on currently unpopular church dogma. The pope was trying to avoid that trap so he could raise the issues of love, compassion, and helping those in need. That seems to me the message that he is striving to state and the position he is trying to achieve. Interestingly, my readings of the pope is that he feels capitalism has lifted more people from poverty and misery than anything inventied by man. The left’s drooling over his apparent softness on social issues will turn once they hear his support for a capitalistic democratic social structure.

    • Ron, he also does not seem to be saying that sin is acceptable, but that sinners must be treated with love and not shunned. I could not agree more — of course, being a big time sinner myself I have a personal interest in that position!

  3. Agree. Keep up the blog. I learn more about religion from your site than from most sermons.

    I attend a Methodist church. My struggle the last few years has been the liberal political support provided from the national Methodist church hierarcy. When the local church pays their support funds to upstream leadership it goes to suppport issues I do not agree with and are contrary to my political beliefs (and BTW aginst the political beliefs of the pastor and most of the congregation). How does one stay supportive and invovled at the local level, when the national leadership works against your political beliefs on how to help people. Expanding dependency on government rather than personal responsibility does not seem to be an effective long term approach to providing for the most needy. Spreading support to those who could do more for themselves seems to me robbing from those who most truly need help.

  4. I don’t think that Philip Yancy would appreciate the implication that he is a Calvinist! In the context his quote sits, it makes it sound like God loving a person means that that person is preordained to be saved.
    Yancy & Lewis both describe in great detail how we, as agents with free will, can and often do turn our backs on God’s love and head into the outer darkness.
    But God doesn’t love us any less for that.

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