16 – Atheists can also do good

Do good and avoid evil… without a doubt, that is everyone’s responsibility and no one is able to stifle the inner voice that constantly indicates this obligation in the depths of the heart. However, is everyone able to respond to this call in the same manner, with equal clarity and equivalent effects? This is a complex topic, with nuances that can’t be dealt with lightly. Yet it must be understood with absolute clarity, lest we confuse issues that are of capital importance for our salvation… As always, Catholic doctrine sheds abundant light on such questions amidst the prevalent darkness.



Quote AQuote B
Instead each and every one not only can but must do good, whatever faith they profess, for “they have within them the commandment to do good”, since they are “created in the image of God”. This was the essence of Pope Francis’ reflection on Wednesday morning, 22 May, for those who took part in the early Mass which he celebrated in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae. The Gospel passage proclaimed at the Mass (Mk 9:38-40) refers to the disciples’ complaint about a person who was doing good but who did not belong to their group. “Jesus reprimands them. ‘Do not prevent him, let him do good’. The disciples, without thinking, were fixed on an idea: we alone can do good, because we alone possess the truth. And none of those who do not possess the truth can do good”, the Pope specified further. However this is an erroneous attitude and Jesus corrected them. Is it licit “for us to ask ourselves who can do good and why? What do Jesus’ words ‘do not prevent him’ mean? What lies behind them?” In this case “the disciples were somewhat intolerant”, but “Jesus broadened their horizons and we may imagine that he said:if this person can do good, we can all do good. So can anyone who is not one of us’”. “The Lord created us in his image”, and if “he does good, let all of us keep this commandment in our heart: do good and do not do evil. Everyone”. The idea that we cannot all do good is a form of closedness, “a barrier”, the Pope emphasized, “that leads us to war”, and “to killing in God’s name. We cannot kill in God’s name”. Indeed, even “saying that one can kill in God’s name is blasphemy”. The Lord redeemed everyone with Christ’s blood, “Everyone, not only Catholics. Everyone”. And atheists? “They too. It is this blood that makes us children of God”. (Homily, Santa Marta, May 22, 2013)
But [asks Scalfari] what happens to those who don’t have faith? The response [of Francis] is that if one has loved others at least as much as oneself (possibly a little more than oneself) the Father will welcome him. Faith helps, but it is not the element of he who judges – it is life. Sin is part of life and repentance too is part of it. Remorse, the sense of guilt, the desire of liberation, the abandoning of egoism… (Interview with Eugenio Scalfari published in La Repubblica, March 15, 2015)

Note: The declarations cited above are found in the article-interview of Eugenio Scalfari and are attributed, without quotation marks, to Francis. However, since these words have never received any official retraction, we include them here along with the habitual array of teachings.

Teachings of the Magisterium

Enter the various parts of our study


Sacred Scripture

Jn 3:5

Jesus answered, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.’ (Jn 3:5)

Rom 6:4

We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. (Rom 6:4)

John Paul II

The idea of a universal truth, knowable by human reason, is necessary to correctly determine the criteria of good and evil

Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and ‘being at peace with oneself’, so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment. As is immediately evident, the crisis of truth is not unconnected with this development. Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person’s intelligence […] Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. (John Paul II. Encyclical Veritatis splendor, no. 32)

The fundamental dependence of freedom upon truth

Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. […] Certain tendencies in contemporary moral theology, under the influence of the currents of subjectivism and individualism just mentioned, involve novel interpretations of the relationship of freedom to the moral law, human nature and conscience, and propose novel criteria for the moral evaluation of acts. Despite their variety, these tendencies are at one in lessening or even denying the dependence of freedom on truth. […] in the light of the fundamental dependence of freedom upon truth, a dependence which has found its clearest and most authoritative expression in the words of Christ: ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). (John Paul II. Encyclical Veritatis splendor, no. 32)

Benedict XVI

Charity needs to be practiced in the light of truth, else it be misconstrued and emptied of meaning

I am aware of the ways in which charity has been and continues to be misconstrued and emptied of meaning, […] Hence the need to link charity with truth not only in the sequence, pointed out by Saint Paul, of veritas in caritate (Eph 4:15), but also in the inverse and complementary sequence of caritas in veritate. Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the ‘economy’ of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practised in the light of truth. In this way, not only do we do a service to charity enlightened by truth, but we also help give credibility to truth, demonstrating its persuasive and authenticating power in the practical setting of social living. (Benedict XVI. Encyclical Caritas in veritate, no. 2, June 29, 2009)

Without truth, charity is without value and degenerates into sentimentality

Through this close link with truth, charity can be recognized as an authentic expression of humanity and as an element of fundamental importance in human relations, including those of a public nature. Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith, through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity: it grasps its meaning as gift, acceptance, and communion. Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. […] A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world. Without truth, charity is confined to a narrow field devoid of relations. (Benedict XVI. Encyclical Caritas in veritate, no. 3-4, June 29, 2009)

Atheism is one of the chief obstacles to human development - humanism which excludes God is inhuman

Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is. In the face of the enormous problems surrounding the development of peoples, which almost make us yield to discouragement, we find solace in the sayings of our Lord Jesus Christ, who teaches us: ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5) […] Openness to God makes us open towards our brothers and sisters and towards an understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a spirit of solidarity. On the other hand, ideological rejection of God and an atheism of indifference, oblivious to the Creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today. A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism. (Benedict XVI. Encyclical Caritas in veritate, no. 78, June 29, 2009)

Catechism of the Catholic Church

By reason, man recognizes the God’s voice urging to do good and avoid evil: to love God and neighbor

By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God which urges him ‘to do what is good and avoid what is evil’ (GS 16). Everyone is obliged to follow this law, which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person. […] By his Passion, Christ delivered us from Satan and from sin. He merited for us the new life in the Holy Spirit. His grace restores what sin had damaged in us. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1706. 1708)

What makes us adopted sons of God is Baptism

Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature’ (2Cor 5:17), an adopted son of God (Gal 4:5-7), who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature’ (2Pet 1:4), member of Christ (1Cor 6:15; 12:27) and coheir with him (Rom 8:17), and a temple of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 6:19). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1265)

God gives us his grace to become children of God

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God (Jn 1:12-18), adoptive sons (Rom 8:14-17), partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:3-4) and of eternal life (Jn 17:3). Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an ‘adopted son’ he can henceforth call God ‘Father,’ in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1996 – 1997)

Divine adoption alone makes us capable of following Christ’s example: doing good

He who believes in Christ becomes a son of God. This filial adoption transforms him by giving him the ability to follow the example of Christ. It makes him capable of acting rightly and doing good. In union with his Savior, the disciple attains the perfection of charity which is holiness. Having matured in grace, the moral life blossoms into eternal life in the glory of heaven. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1709)

Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

Salvation is not brought about without one’s own willing or participation – one must accept supernatural life

The expression ‘for many,’ while remaining open to the inclusion of each human person, is reflective also of the fact that this salvation is not brought about in some mechanistic way, without one’s own willing or participation; rather, the believer is invited to accept in faith the gift that is being offered and to receive the supernatural life that is given to those who participate in this mystery, living it out in their lives as well so as to be numbered among the ‘many’ to whom the text refers. (Letter from Cardinal Francis Arinze on the translation of “pro multis”, October 17, 2006)

Council of Trent

Christ died for all, but not all receive the benefit of His death – only to whom the merit of His passion is communicated

But although Christ died for all (2Co 5:15), yet not all receive the benefit of His death, but those only to whom the merit of His passion is communicated. For, as indeed […] unless they were born again in Christ, they never would be justified [can. 2 and 10], since in that new birth through the merit of His passion, the grace, whereby they are made just, is bestowed upon them. (Denzinger-Hünermann 1523. Council of Trent, Session VI: Decree on Justification, January 13, 1547)

Anathema: whoever says that man can live justly and merit eternal life without grace

Can. 2: If anyone shall say that divine grace through Christ Jesus is given for this only, that man may more easily be able to live justly and merit eternal life, as if by free will without grace he were able to do both, though with difficulty and hardship: let him be anathema [cf. no. 795, 809]. […] Can. 10: If anyone shall say that men are justified without the justice of Christ by which He merited for us, or that by that justice itself they are formally just: let him be anathema [cf. no. 798, 799]. (Denzinger-Hünermann 1552, 1560. Council of Trent, Session VI: Decree on Justification, Canons, January 13, 1547)

Saint Augustine of Hippo

Man cannot do good unless aided by the gratuitous grace of God

Nor can a man will any good thing unless he is aided by Him who cannot will evil – that is, by the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. For ‘everything which is not of faith is sin’ (Rom 14:23). And thus the good will which withdraws itself from sin is faithful, because ‘the just lives by faith’ (Hab 2:4). And it pertains to faith to believe in Christ. ‘And no man can believe in Christ— that is, come to Him— unless it be given to him’ (Rom 1:17). No man, therefore, can have a righteous will, unless, with no foregoing merits, he has received the true, that is, the gratuitous grace from above. (Saint Augustine. Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 1, 3, 7)

Without grace, man can do evil with the appearance of good

Nor let us be disturbed by what he wrote to the Philippians: ‘Touching the righteousness which is in the law, one who is without blame.’ For he could be within in evil affections a transgressor of the law, and yet fulfil the open works of the law, either by the fear of men or of God Himself; but by terror of punishment, not by love and delight in righteousness. For it is one thing to do good with the will of doing good, and another thing to be so inclined by the will to do evil, that one would actually do it if it could be allowed without punishment. For thus assuredly he is sinning within his will itself, who abstains from sin not by will but by fear. (Saint Augustine. Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 1, 9, 15)

II Council of Orange (529)

Anyone who asserts that without grace we can labor well contradicts the Apostle

Canon 6. If anyone asserts that, without the grace of God, mercy is divinely given to us when we believe, will, desire, try, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, urge, but does not confess that through the infusion and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in us, it is brought about that we believe, wish, or are able to do all these things as we ought, and does not join either to human humility or obedience the help of grace, nor agree that it is the gift of His grace that we are obedient and humble, opposes the Apostle who says: What have you, that you have not received? (1Cor 4:7); and: By the grace of God I am that, which I am (1Cor 15:10 cf. St. Augustine, De dono pers. 23, 64 and Saint Prosper of Aquitaine, Contra Coll 2, 6). (Denzinger-Hünermann 376. Saint Felix III, Council of Orange II, 529)

Deceived by a heretical spirit: to affirm that through the strength of nature, and without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, eternal life can be attained

Can. 7. If anyone affirms that without the illumination and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who gives to all sweetness in consenting to and believing in the truth, through the strength of nature he can think anything good which pertains to the salvation of eternal life, as he should, or choose, or consent to salvation, that is to the evangelical proclamation, he is deceived by the heretical spirit, not understanding the voice of God speaking in the Gospel: ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5); and that of the Apostle: ‘Not that we are fit to think everything by ourselves as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is, from God’ (2Cor 3:5; cf. St. Augustine De gratia Christi 25, 26). (Denzinger-Hünermann 377. Saint Felix III, Council of Orange II, 529)

Without God man can do no good

Can. 20.That without God man can do no good. God does many good things in man, which man does not do; indeed man can do no good that God does not expect that man do’. (Denzinger-Hünermann 390. Saint Felix III, Council of Orange II, 529)

Vatican Council II

Sin is overcome only by the aid of God’s grace

Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end. Since man’s freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God’s grace can he bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each man must render an account of his own life, whether he has done good or evil. (Pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes, no. 17)

When God is forgotten, the atheist himself is unintelligible

For without the Creator the creature would disappear. For their part, however, all believers of whatever religion always hear His revealing voice in the discourse of creatures. When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible. (Pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes, no. 36)
The Holy Father also described how today’s reading shows how the Lord will judge the great and the lowly “according to their deeds,” with the damned being thrown into the pool of fire. […] “Eternal damnation is not a torture chamber,” he said. “That’s a description of this second death: it is a death. And those who will not be received in the Kingdom of God, it’s because they have not drawn close to the Lord. These are the people who journeyed along their own path, distancing themselves from the Lord and passing in front of the Lord but then choosing to walk away from Him.” What eternal damnation is, he explained, is “continually distancing oneself from God.” “It is the worst pain, an unsatisfied heart, a heart that was created to find God but which, out of arrogance and self-confidence, distances itself from God.” Distancing oneself from God Who gives happiness and Who loves us so much, the Pontiff admonished, is the “fire,” and the road to eternal damnation.(Homily, Santa Marta, November 25, 2016)


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

5 thoughts on “16 – Atheists can also do good

  1. This was informative, but I find some Vatican II references less than compelling. Like: “For their part, however, all believers of whatever religion always hear His revealing voice in the discourse of creatures.”

    I believe this is one of those ambiguous statements what sound good but on deeper reading can foster indifferentism.

    First, are there other religions? I was taught there was only one true religion, the Catholic one. All other belief systems are sects, or paganism.

    Second, does God speak to these sectarians and paganism in their sects? Or does the Catholic Church speak to them on His behalf?

    Third, what is meant by “discourse of creatures”? Ambiguity. Which creatures? Other men? Other creatures, animate and inanimate in nature? This quote, like much of what came out of Vatican II, and from John Paul II needs a good priest, well educated in philosophy, theology, and Traditional Church teaching to interpret.
    What popes write, that goes out to the whole world through media (that said pope knows full well will disseminate it) must be clearer. Does one need a Doctorate to read Church documents these days?

Leave a Reply