It's not for me to declare him a heretic, but reports like this of the Pope saying that atheists will be saved by living moral lives apart from faith in Christ or even belief in God, certainly raise the question: is the Pope, wittingly or unwittingly, a Pelagian?
The church condemned the Pelagian heresy at several councils, including Ephesus in 431 and most definitively at the Second Council of Orange in 529AD, thus preserving the Apostolic teaching that salvation is a gift that is received through faith in Jesus Christ, not a reward for good works:
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. Paul's Letter to the Romans, 3:21 (NIV)But Pelagian tendencies survived in monasticism and popular piety. Even today, many Roman Catholics, including higher clergy, are "practical Pelagians", according to American Roman Catholic catechist and author Sherry Weddell:
"I’d estimate that 95 – 98% of all the Catholics – including pastoral leaders – that I’ve ever worked with are functional universalists. Meaning that concerns regarding the personal salvation of anyone never cross their mind or affect their pastoral decisions and priorities. Roughly the same number are de facto Pelagians."
This rings true to me based on my experiences with Roman Catholics. So, I suppose in that context a pope with Pelagian leanings should not be that much of a surprise. Francis, alas, is not Benedict XVI, the German scholar who by virtue of his origins at least had a first-hand familiarity with the doctrinal reforms proposed by Dr. Luther, which later became the doctrinal basis of the Lutheran Church once Luther was excommunicated by the Pope.
But whether he is a Pelagian or not (we suspect, even hope, that his theological minders are presently working overtime to ensure that he is not), the Pope appears to have fallen into another serious doctrinal error by declaring that it is a sin to go against conscience, effectively elevating conscience over divine revelation as a religious authority. Dr. Luther famously took a stand for the rights of conscience in religious matters at the Diet of Worms when he said that it was neither right nor safe to go against conscience; but he had in mind a conscience enlightened and informed by revelation in Holy Scripture, natural law and sound reasoning:
"Unless convinced by the testimony of Scripture or right reason, for I trust neither the pope nor councils inasmuch as they have often erred and contradicted one another, I am bound by conscience, held captive by the Word of God in the Scriptures I have quoted. I neither can nor will recant anything, for it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience. God help me! Amen."That is self-evidently not the case with atheists, who reject divine revelation and whose uninformed consciences and darkened reasoning therefore inevitably lead them in to sin, which is properly defined as transgression of God's Law, not transgression of conscience. It may be the case that Pope Francis, in his dialogue with atheists, was impelled by pastoral concerns (there's no doubting he has the heart of a pastor) ; but pastoral concern uninformed by sound doctrine is unlikely to guide anyone surely along the way that leads to eternal life.
Finally, we must note the irony involved in a Pope espousing a doctrine of the rights of conscience that is so open to religious subjectivism and unhinged from the catholic tradition. What a quandary this must place formerly Lutheran Roman Catholic bloggers in. After all, those are their usual complaints about Luther!