A Vatican spokesman clarified on Thursday that atheists are still going to hell despite Pope Francis' homily last week that pointed out doing good wasn't just confined to the faith community and even atheists, despite their views, are able to do good as well.
"Doing good," the pope explained in his homily last Wednesday, is not a matter of faith: "It is a duty, it is an identity card that our Father has given to all of us, because He has made us in His image and likeness. And He does good, always."
But in an "explanatory note on the meaning of 'salvation,'" the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman highlighted that being "good" alone is not enough to be saved. People who know about the Catholic Church, he explained, "cannot be saved" if they "refuse to enter her or remain in her."
In his homily last week, Pope Francis pointed out that everyone, including atheists, has been redeemed by Christ and people can all work together through the "culture of encounter" to do good.
"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!" said Pope Francis.
"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."
In a USA Today report last Thursday, many American nonbelievers expressed surprise but also welcomed the comments from Pope Francis acknowledging that having no faith doesn't mean that someone is pure evil.
"We are a community that is just trying to do good and live good lives, just like most communities are," Greg Epstein, Harvard University's Humanist chaplain and author of Good Without God told USA Today. "His statement is an acknowledgment of that. It is welcome and it is gratifying."
Alluding to the atheist woman who quietly declared her position to CNN's Wolf Blitzer after he asked her if she wanted to thank God for surviving the recent tornado, Epstein said he was struck by her response.
"You have this small example of this soft-spoken young mother who is recovering from the tornado who by her presence, her quiet dignity, not only exemplified what the pope was saying, but overshadowed him," Epstein said. "The quiet dignity of her just being a person and so clearly a good and loving person, it makes my reaction, and I would think a lot of people's reaction (to Francis' remarks), 'Well, of course.'"
Dale McGowan, who runs the Foundation Beyond Belief, also received the pope's comments as an affirmation of nonbelievers.
"Anything that decreases the mistrust and fear between people is a good thing," he said. "Some people might say it contradicts past statements (of other popes), but I don't care about any of that. It is terrific when a position evolves to where we can put division behind us, and this is an example of that and I think it is great."