Some of you have probably seen the video where Pope Francis comforts a young boy (Emanuele) whose father died. Emanuele comes up to Francis and privately asks him if his father is in heaven. With Emanuel permission, Francis answers publicly and gives the young boy comfort. The entire scene is moving.
But it is also seemingly un-catholic. More than that, Francis appears to deny that salvation comes through faith in Christ.
What Does Francis Actually Affirm?
Francis tells Emanuele that despite his father’s unbelief God was nonetheless pleased with his father. Although you may have heard this online, Francis does not actually affirm that Emanuele’s father is in heaven. He only affirms that God would be pleased that the father baptized his four children. And he further affirms that God is good to his children.
He finishes his talk by encouraging Emanuel to pray to his father. And this presumably means that his father is in a heaven-like location. But to be clear, Francis never eplicitely says that Emanuele’s father is in heaven.
Francis also affirms that the boy’s father is a child of God in a general sense. To give context, here is Francis’ explanation of how all people are children of God:
Earlier, a young girl named Carlotta also asked the pope a delicate question: “When we are baptized, we become children of God. People who aren’t baptized, are they not children of God?”
“What does your heart tell you?” the pope asked Carlotta. She said, they are, too.
“Right, and I’ll explain,” the pope told her. “We are all children of God. Everyone. Everyone.”
So here is what Francis seems to say. All people are children of God, Emanuele’s father was a good man, and so God treats his children well. Everything is left unspecified. But Emanuele will likely find comfort by believing that his father is in heaven, and Francis still upheld Catholic teaching because he did not explicitly affirm that the man was in heaven.
What Can We Affirm?
We should first appreciate the difficult question that Francis was asked. If a believing child asked you after the destiny of his unbelieving father, how would you respond? It’s not as easy as it sounds.
We should secondly note that God’s universal fathership as creator is much different than his fathership to us through adoption. When we believe in Christ Jesus, we are adopted into the family of God and are treated like children of God. There is a movement from being part of the mass of humanity to being a child of God. The pope’s comments don’t match the biblical emphasis here and sound vaguely like twentieth-century Protestant liberals.
We should thirdly clarify that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only way that someone can enter into heaven. While the Roman Catholic church has incorrectly mixed merit into grace (a central concern of the Reformation), the Catholic church has nonetheless maintained that Christ is involved in salvation. Yes, the Catholic church wrongly conceives of salvation by adding merit to faith, but they at least affirm that Christ is central to salvation. But Francis does not even mention the Gospel nor the name of Christ (even if he might misconceive the nature of saving faith).
We, nevertheless, cannot enter into heaven apart from Jesus, from the Gospel. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Yet Francis mentions this reality exactly zero times.
I am reminded of the woes that Jesus gave to the religious leaders of Israel in Matthew 23. At one point, he proclaims, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matt 23:13).
Francis leads Emanuele and all in the audience to hear a vague message about God’s goodness, yet never mentions Christ or the Gospel. He shuts the door to the kingdom of the heaven. He doesn’t even mention the door (John 10:9).
And it leads me to wonder, does the Pope even believe in the Gospel?