No matter how much criticism he gets from his faithful, or how often his cardinals scramble to walk his statements back, Pope Francis just won’t stop offering atheists a chance at salvation.
In recent months, newspaper editor and stalwart atheist Eugenio Scalfari has written two open letters to the pontiff, both of which were published in Scalfari’s Italian daily La Repubblica. Scalfari’s letters appear to have addressed some of the Pope’s reflections in his first encyclical, Lumen fidei.
Any earlier pope would have likely ignored the communiqués, but that’s not Francis’ style. Instead he responded in a three-page-long letter that made the newspaper’s front page:
In one of his earlier letters, Scalfari asked whether Pope Francis believes “God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith.” In a move that’s sure to infuriate Catholic purists, Francis affirmed that God’s forgiveness and mercy is open even to the godless… and the key task for unbelievers is to “obey their conscience”:
Given that — and this is fundamental — God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience. In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.
Considering the number of people who have abandoned the Church rather than disregard their consciences on issues like contraception, abortion, and LGBTQ rights, these words from Pope Francis appear both shrewd and surprising. Without requiring skeptics to abandon their doubts or make professions of faith, Francis offers to “walk a bit of the way together” with religious non-believers. In particular, the pontiff seemed to address those most alienated by Catholicism, adding:
Believe me, in spite of [the Church’s] slowness, the unfaithful, the mistakes and the sins that the Church might have committed and can still commit among those who compose it, [the Church] has no other sense and aim if not to live and witness Jesus.
Granted, it’s not exactly an apology for decades of sex abuse or the bishops’ various assaults on freedom of conscience. But when you consider the fact that it took Catholicism four centuries to apologize to Galileo for that whole geocentrism snafu, this sort of admission of Vatican imperfection seems unusually humble and shockingly up-to-date.
All that remains to be seen is how quickly Francis’ handlers will scramble to tone down this latest batch of inclusive statements and how long they can rein in the renegade pontiff before he reaches out to the unfaithful again.