Disputes about von Balthasar’s theology continue, but in 1988 Pope John Paul II honored the theologian — a few days after his death — by making him a cardinal.
Francis is hardly the only one. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan also pointed to this view of God’s unlimited grace in his sit-down this month with Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, himself a Â Catholic.
“If even atheists are redeemed by Christ, why have I been going to Mass every Sunday?” Colbert asked Dolan with a false indignation that mirrored the real questions many in his audience had about comments Francis made about nonbelievers last May.
Dolan’s response: “Look, you don’t go to Mass to win heaven. You go to ask God for help to get you there. You go to Mass to thank him for being such a great God that he wants you to spend eternity with him. That’s why you go to Mass. You don’t go to win heaven, because you can’t earn it — it’s a gift. He wants to give it to all of us.”
The issues, like Francis’ words, are loaded and can be controversial. Ironically, what the pope,Â and the Catholic Church, are emphasizing is the priority of God’s limitless grace rather than salvation by one’s own effort — something Protestants might cheer.
Evangelical theologian Scot McKnight said everyone should step back and take a breath. “I’m confident . he’s not disagreeing with church dogma,” said McKnight, who teaches at Northern Seminary outside Chicago. “They are unguarded statements needing more nuance.”
To be sure, there remain significant differences between Catholic views of salvation and the various Protestant conceptions about who is saved and when, and if a Christian is guaranteed a ticket to paradise.
But this most recent episode may not be as divisive as some think.
Instead, the worried observers could have mistaken Francis’ pastoral gesture as an effort to dilute the gospel rather than what he really intended — an evangelical outreach intended to bring nonbelievers closer to Christ, not to introduce relativism into the church.
(Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.)
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