With President Donald Trump’s visit to the Vatican today, I’d like to share a couple of relevant thoughts:
Way back in 1984, I was a spiritual emigre from Catholicism and a new believer in Jesus Christ. At some point I learned from news sources that President Ronald Reagan was going to appoint William A. Wilson as the first American Ambassador to the Vatican. In order to make the appointment, Reagan arranged for the repeal of an 1867 federal law, which banned the use of funds for a diplomatic mission to the Vatican. One hundred and fifty years ago, Americans definitely did not want their government establishing diplomatic ties with the pope, but things had changed. I wrote a letter to Reagan saying diplomatic ties with the Vatican was a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state and shortly thereafter received back a form letter, which casually justified the action. At that point in history, the Reagan government and the Vatican were already working closely together to subvert the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe.
Vatican City, the smallest “state” in the world, covers an area of only 109 acres within the heart of Rome, with a tiny resident population of 1000 people. To put it into perspective, Central Park in New York City is 850 acres. It’s certainly not a “state” in the sense that we define the word but is strictly the central administration site for the world’s largest religion.
There are some who see Trump’s destination choices for his very first international trip – to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, and the Vatican – as spiritually significant and perhaps not in a good way.
Several times on this blog I have confidently asserted that pope Francis has said that atheists will be able to merit Heaven if they follow their conscience and are “good.” A few Catholics have written me challenging that assertion. The controversy goes back to the Fall of 2013 when Italian journalist and atheist, Eugenio Scalfari, published a letter from Francis in which the pope suggested that atheists could merit Heaven:
“Given that – and this is fundamental – God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience.”
The reaction was swift. Conservative Catholics claimed the pope was NOT saying atheists could merit Heaven and proceeded to spin his words every which way, while liberal Catholics celebrated the pope’s inclusiveness. See the article below from the liberal National Catholic Reporter:
Pope Francis’ outreach to atheists not as controversial as it seems
Yes, Francis’s recognition of salvation for atheists already had a precedent with the 1964 Vatican II document, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium), which declared that members of non-Catholic and non-(c)hristian religions could also merit Heaven:
“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation” (no. 16).
For Francis, it was only a very small step from Lumen Gentium to recognizing that atheists could also merit Heaven by following the “dictates of their conscience.”
Conservative and traditionalist Catholics continue to fight the reforms of Vatican II and Francis. The first couple of years after Francis was elected, conservatives in the church were kept extremely busy by having to constantly attribute the pope’s radical remarks to media misrepresentation. Four years later, conservative Catholics have largely accepted the fact that Francis is not in their camp when it comes to defending traditional Catholicism and count the days until his tenure is up. But it’s clear that a few conservative Catholics here at WordPress haven’t gotten the news yet.
None of the above is the Good News! of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Leaders of nations and religious institutions jockey for power and influence but none of it has to do with Jesus Christ.
Postscript: During the meeting with the pope earlier today, First Lady, Melania Trump, asked him to bless her rosary. I therefore assume the Slovenian native is a Catholic although she has never publicly spoken about her religion; another one among many cultural Catholics who still adhere to sacramental good luck charms (the rosary) but commit “mortal” sin every Sunday by not attending mass. The Vatican requested that the women in Trump’s entourage adhere to official protocol by dressing in black. Only Catholic queens are allowed to wear white in the pope’s presence.