Are We All “Fundamentally Good,” As Pope Francis Asserts?

Many Protestants argued that the pope saying "we are fundamentally good" was an "unbiblical" teaching. Are they right?

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In a recent episode of her podcast, Allie Beth Stuckey addressed comments made by Pope Francis in which he stated that the human heart is “fundamentally good.” Stuckey, along with other evangelical leaders, criticized the pope’s remarks as unbiblical, citing scriptural references that emphasize the sinful nature of humanity.

Stuckey’s critique hinges on the biblical understanding of human nature. She points to verses like Mark 10:18, “No one is good except God alone,” and Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick,” to argue that the pope’s comments contradict core Christian teachings. Stuckey acknowledges that, in context, Pope Francis did declare that we are all sinners, but she objects to his assertion that we can be fundamentally good. If we are good at heart, as Pope Francis says, then what need have we of a Savior?

Human Nature: Inherently Good or Totally Depraved?

The debate is a continuation of arguments from the 16th century, in which Luther and Calvin insisted on the “total depravity” of human nature. The Catholic Church responded at the Council of Trent, affirming our absolute inability to save ourselves and our reliance on Jesus as Savior. As Bishop Baron clarifies, “The difference is that Trent does not hold to a total depravity anthropology, but rather teaches that our basic spiritual faculties remain intact, giving grace, in fact, something to build on.” The concept of fundamental goodness does not deny our fallen nature, nor does it negate our need for salvation. Instead, this nuanced understanding of humanity’s state acknowledges both our fallenness and the possibility of redemption, underscoring the transformative power of God’s grace. 

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Our understanding of human nature arises from the book of Genesis, when God saw that all He created, including human beings, was very good (Genesis 1:31). When Pope Francis speaks of the human heart being “good,” he is referring to this inherent dignity and the potential for goodness that exists within every person, despite our fallen nature.

This interpretation is more closely aligned with Scripture than Stuckey’s total depravity view, as the Fall narrative in Genesis does not say that human beings lost the image of God (however marred it may now be by our inherent tendency to sin). Rather, it states that human beings now have knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:22). 

Selective Sola Scriptura

While Stuckey’s passion for the Gospel and her articulation of our need for a Savior shine, her brand of sola scriptura includes a hand-picked selection of Scripture verses that fit her total depravity doctrine, itself an extra-biblical framework. When she critiques Pope Francis for his “unbiblical” comments, she herself is being “unbiblical.” Stuckey falls prey to her own accusations: there simply is no verse that says human beings are inherently bad; the truth about our nature just isn’t that simple. 

The biblical evidence Stuckey cites falls short of demonstrating her views of total depravity, while ignoring the many places in Scripture that show humanity has not entirely lost the goodness and image of God with which He created us. 

In Genesis 1:26-27, we read that God created humanity in His image and likeness. This foundational truth underscores our inherent goodness. God’s creative act imbued us with dignity, purpose, and a reflection of His character. Stuckey’s assertion that we have lost our goodness entirely overlooks this essential aspect of our identity. Acknowledging our fallen nature doesn’t negate our inherent goodness as God’s image-bearers.

For example, Psalm 139:14 tells us that we are “fearfully and wonderful made.” Psalms 73:1 and 24:4 state that God is good to those who are “pure in heart.” The biblical figures Noah, Abraham, Job, Joseph, and Elizabeth and Zachariah are all declared “righteous” before God—prior to the redemption offered by Jesus Christ. 

And indeed, the very fact that He created us and loves us shows that we cannot be all bad. After all, can God love what is entirely evil?

Scripture on Salvation

In her podcast episode, Stuckey passionately declares that, “Any flavor of religion that tells you that you have to work your way toward salvation…is not Christianity according to God’s Word because that is not the Gospel.”

How, then, does Stuckey account for those biblical passages that indicate this very teaching?

In Philippians 2:12, St. Paul instructs the faithful to, “work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” James declares that “Faith without works is dead” (2:17). Ephesians 2:10 speaks of the good works which God prepared in advance for us to do. And in Matthew 5:16, Jesus Himself instructs us, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

In support for her views on salvation, Stuckey turns not to Scripture but to the extrabiblical 1563 Heidelberg Catechism, an odd choice during a critique of a religious leader being “unbiblical.” 

Stuckey claims to be speaking from a Reformed Protestant perspective, but clearly she is not speaking for all reformed theology, as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran and Catholic churches resolved doctrinal differences on this matter in 1999, stating: 

By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

Catholics and Lutherans agree that we were dead in our sin and that by grace through faith Jesus made us alive. But those verses alone are not the entirety of the Gospel. Stuckey’s gospel emphasizes Christ’s mercy while diminishing our personal responsibility. The gift of grace is not one and done. As Jesus Himself said, “Not everyone who cries Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom” (Matthew 7:21). We are called to continual conversion because we do fall even after we meet Protestant criteria for being “saved.” As Catholics, we acknowledge Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. We also know that is only the beginning.

Does Scripture Support Sola Scriptura?

While Stuckey criticizes Pope Francis for promoting “unbiblical” teachings that, as we have seen, clearly do have scriptural support, she does so from an unbiblical view of Scripture.  The doctrine of sola scriptura simply does not appear in the Bible. In fact, the opposite is true. The Bible does not instruct us to turn to itself alone for truth, but to the Church, which is “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). 

Historically, the canon or list of recognized authoritative and Spirit-inspired books that comprise the Bible came to us from the Church, first appearing in A.D. 367, a full 37 years after the Nicene Creed was decided upon—by the Church. The Church predates the Bible, having both written and determined which books qualified to be recognized as Scripture in the first place. The doctrine of sola scriptura requires that one believe that the Holy Spirit worked in and through the Church to write and select the books in the Bible but somehow abandoned her along the way in her attempts to interpret its meaning. 

Sola scriptura simply cannot stand up to a sola scriptura standard. 

Jesus Came to Save Sinners

Why did Jesus come to us? He came to restore the original goodness and right relationship with God as He created us for in Genesis. To do this, He did not preach a Gospel of total depravity. He did not condemn us and wax on about the wrath of God. Rather, His focus was on preaching and living the love of God, despite our sinfulness.  

He ate with tax collectors and sinners, using the metaphor of medicine to explain His methods. Jesus tells us that He came for the sick (Luke 5:31)—who could not be restored to good health if they had never had it in the first place. He healed lepers and welcomed children and showed mercy to the least of these precisely to demonstrate the value and dignity of each person. 

A doctrine of total depravity insists that people are only good and valuable if they follow particular religious precepts—which is exactly what Jesus preached against when He called the pharisees “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34).

I imagine that Stuckey herself would not agree that only Christians are valuable; why else would Christians defend the unborn and become missionaries? It is because even those who are not yet Christian still retain their value as creations of God, as children of God, whose goodness is marred but not lost as a result of the Fall. 

Schism and Division: Reformation as Anti-Gospel

At the close of her message, Stuckey proclaims that, “The Gospel is worth 1,000 Reformations.” While I agree that the truth is worth great sacrifice, and even in some cases worth dying for, the spirit of schism and division at work in the Reformation is itself contrary to the Gospel. 

Stuckey’s approach to fraternal correction leaves something to be desired—at least according to biblical principles. Her episode, titled “The Pope Gets the Gospel Wrong,” is inaccurate and divisive. Scripture urges us to correct one another with gentleness and patience (2 Timothy 2:24-25), and to have humility in our disagreements, to search for answers in dialogue, prioritizing unity and love (Ephesians 4:2-3). Jesus’ final prayer on earth was for unity: “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one…May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me” (John 17:21-23). 

Allie Beth Stuckey declares that it is “anti-Gospel” for Pope Francis to see the same good in people that Jesus Himself recognized, despite their sinfulness, while failing to recognize that her championing of the Reformation is itself anti-Gospel, in direct contradiction with the prayers, mission, and desires of Jesus. 

It is imperative that we seek the truth of the Gospel. The Protestant Reformation did bring to light issues that needed reforming, and indeed God used it to bring about the Catholic Reformation. But the brokenness of the body of Christ that the Reformation left in its wake is not something to celebrate. Rather, we should always be seeking ways to resolve our differences and return to communion with one another as one Body in Christ.

Author

  • Samantha Stephenson

    Samantha Stephenson is a Catholic homeschooling mother of 4, author of Reclaiming Motherhood from a Culture Gone Mad, and host of the podcast Mama Prays. You can find her at www.snstephenson.com.

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