Well, now I've heard everything.
A week ago, Pope Francis suggested in a sermon that Catholics ought to be willing to work with anyone, even atheists, because non-believers, like believers, are redeemed through Jesus Christ.
This week, the Vatican pretty much said the pope doesn't know what he is talking about.
Pope Francis "is first and foremost a seasoned pastor and preacher who has much experience in reaching people," said Vatican spokesman Rev. Thomas Rosica. " His words are not spoken in the context of a theological faculty or academy nor in interreligious dialogue."
So, I guess that's what happens when you give up the trappings of the papacy in favor of a simpler and less pretentious governing style. The people you're supposed to be governing tend to treat you as being soft.
I don't mean to be too hard on Rosica. The pope's comments on redemption, meant to encourage his fellow Catholics to concentrate on serving others, not passing judgment, got pretty much interpreted by those of us in the press as suggesting atheists will be able to jog through the pearly gates.
He didn't really say that. In fact, he wasn't talking about heaven at all. He was talking about doing good works on earth. The pope has said many times that atheists, like everyone else, are created in God's image and should, therefore, be treated with respect.
In fact, when you think about it, it would be uncharacteristically arrogant for the pope to just assume that atheists – who, by definition, don't believe in heaven – will see the light when they die.
And in correcting the pope, the Vatican also did not claim that atheists won't go to heaven.
"Rejection of Christianity may not mean the rejection of Christ," Rosica said. "We can never say with ultimate certainty whether a non-Christian who has rejected Christianity . . . is still following the temporary path mapped out for his own salvation which is leading him to an encounter with God."
I rather doubt that atheists care.
But I've never before seen a situation where the Vatican issues a statement saying the pope doesn't understand redemption and salvation.
Because there is a broader implication to what the pope said and that is that, in a certain sense, Francis is rejecting the idea that the pope holds the keys to Christ's kingdom.
For years, one basis of the power of the Catholic hierarchy was the idea that outside the church, there is no salvation.
That whole idea was pretty much abandoned by the Second Vatican Council, but, if you read right-wing Catholic blogs, you can see that it is making a comeback.
But I don't think the current pope is going to promote that comeback.
If he wants to lead a church of the poor and for the poor, then letting go of the keys – my guess is he wants to keep the responsibility for leading sinners to salvation but not the power to condemn them – then he is letting go of the basis for Catholic pomp and wealth.
This guy continues to astonish.