But a recent suggestion by Pope Francis that atheists could also be “redeemed” by God has led the Church to return to medieval rhetoric – with an official Vatican spokesman forced to clarify that non-believers are indeed destined for hell.
The controversy began after Pope Francis made an attempt to build bridges with atheists.
During a sermon at the Vatican, the first Latin American Pontiff proclaimed: “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!”
The admission that Catholics do not have a monopoly on being good people was initially welcomed by secularists.
“While humanists have been saying for years that one can be good without a god, hearing this from the leader of the Catholic Church is quite heartening,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.
But the mood of goodwill was short-lived.
Just a day later, in a thinly veiled rebuke of the new Pope, Vatican spokesman Father Thomas Rosica made it abundantly clear what was really meant.
In an “explanatory note on the meaning of salvation”, he stated that merely being “good” is not enough to avoid going to hell.
On the issue of “salvation” he remarked: “They cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her.”
The comments come as a reminder of the Catholic Church’s uncompromising views on matters of conscience and belief, following a series of rows about its opposition to more temporal issues such as same-sex relationships, abortion, and contraception.
Commentators questioned how the clarification issued by the Vatican fitted with the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
Atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins tweeted: “Atheists go to heaven? Nope. Sorry world, infallible pope got it wrong. Vatican steps in with alacrity.”
And Sean Oakley, founder of the Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society at Reading University, said: “This latest episode is only another demonstration of how much influence the conservative lobby has within the Catholic Church.”