When the media covers what the Pope says they are expected to get it totally wrong. They have a specific narrative more informed by a political ideology than a concern to get coverage of the Catholic Church right. So no surprise here in this regard.
Maybe this is not all that surprising, but it seems to me more and more Catholics are doing the same thing and while their narrative is different, it still comes to a jumping to conclusions. There is a hermeneutic of suspicion when to comes to the words of Pope Francis and a look for evidence that in some way he is departing from Catholic teaching.
The latest example is the letter Pope Francis wrote to Dr Eugenio Scalfari, Italian journalist of La Repubblica. The Vatican just released the English translation of this “Letter to Non-Believers.”
A typical headline was something like “Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God …” or "“Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven.”
The media’s dumb reaction was echoed in some Catholic sites and blogs which made much more out of what the Pope wrote than he actually did.
Jimmy Akin once again does a fine analysis in Did Pope Francis say atheists don’t need to believe in God to be saved? (9 things to know).
I now wish to address the three questions from your article of 7 August. I believe that in the first two questions, what interests you is to understand the attitude of the Church towards those who do not share faith in Jesus. Above all, you ask if the God of Christians forgives those who do not believe and who do not seek faith. Given the premise, and this is fundamental, that the mercy of God is limitless for those who turn to him with a sincere and contrite heart, the issue for the unbeliever lies in obeying his or her conscience. There is sin, even for those who have no faith, when conscience is not followed. Listening to and obeying conscience means deciding in the face of what is understood to be good or evil. It is on the basis of this choice that the goodness or evil of our actions is determined.
The Pope here is not speaking specifically about salvation or equating following your conscience as the only condition for salvation.
While the Catechism classes Atheism and Agnosticism as sins against religion it also says is the following section:
IV. ERRONEOUS JUDGMENT
1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.
1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.”59 In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.
1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.
1793 If – on the contrary – the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.
1794 A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time “from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.”
So I in no way think the Pope was speaking at all contrary to the faith. Still I think there is a little bit of a problem at times. I have had no problem with what the Pope has had to say, more often it is what he doesn’t say that can add to confusion in understanding him. I believe he is making certain pastoral emphasis fully in accord with Church teaching, but that these emphasis can leave out a more fully articulated view of Church teaching. This in part causes a confusion among Catholics when only a pierce of doctrine is illuminated. This pastoral language sometimes lacks the theological precision that might be desired. No doubt this is always a difficult balance especially within the context of how some of these pastoral messages are presented.
The caveat being that I might be fully off-base here. It just seems to me that there seems to have been more effort to try to explain what the Pope said regarding the faithful. We expect a continuous apologetic effort with the media, but when we have to do the same with Catholics something might be wrong here in how this is being presented.
Although there are other things that enter into this problem. For example the delay between the publishing of the text in what the Pope said and the translation into English and other languages. The story can be generating headlines for a week before we see an official translation.