Nobody can accuse the Catholic Church of being democratic, but as an atheist I’ll paraphrase Winston Churchill’s remark about democracy: Pope Francis is the worst pope we ever had, except for all the others. I’m no papal historian, but I’m pressed to think of a less bad pope. True, I have nothing bad to say about Pope John Paul I, perhaps because he was pope for only 33 days.
Although Pope Benedict XVI unified atheists whenever he made pronouncements on atheists, gays, pedophilia, and all matters sexual, his successor, Pope Francis, is a divider rather than a uniter within the atheist community. Some atheists see this pope glass as 1/10 full, while others see it as 9/10 empty.
For instance, what are we to make of this statement from Pope Francis? “God’s mercy does not have limits and therefore it reaches nonbelievers, too, for whom sin would not be the lack of faith in God, but rather, failure to obey one’s conscience.” Pope Francis added that God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith, as long as they follow their own conscience.
I like the pope’s emphasis on conscience, though I neither want nor need forgiveness for not believing in a nonexistent deity. I doubt that the pope would appreciate someone telling him, “Zeus will forgive you for not believing in him as long as you follow your conscience.” Following one’s conscience instead of a religious “authority” is exactly what atheists and humanists do. We are also guided by reason, empathy, and a growing knowledge of the world to help live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good. No need for gods and other supernatural forces.
Promoting conscience must make a lot of conservative Christians squirm. Is the pope saying it doesn’t matter what you believe about Jesus as long as you are a good person? Not quite, but he comes closer to that position than any pope in my memory. I’d say the difference between conservative and liberal Christians is that conservatives place belief above behavior and view this life as preparation for an afterlife, while liberals place behavior above belief and focus on improving the human condition.
The issue for me is not just how much of Catholic theology this or that pope believes, but which parts he emphasizes and which parts he mostly ignores. Pope Francis is concentrating more on peace, poverty and social justice than on abortion, gay marriage and contraception. He even gave a limited shout-out to gays, asking “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” But he conditions his benevolence on a search for the Lord.