Pope Francis tells atheists to ‘obey their conscience’

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Once again breaking with traditional Vatican protocol, Pope Francis on Wednesday (Sept. 11) penned a long letter to the Italian liberal daily La Repubblica to affirm that an “open dialogue free of prejudices” between Christians and atheists is “necessary and precious.”

Francis’ front-page letter was a response to two open letters published in previous months by Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of La Repubblica and an avowed atheist.

The pope’s letter is especially notable for its open and honest assessment of the spiritual state of nonbelievers. And for an institution that long claimed sole jurisdiction on matters of salvation, Francis seems to open the door to the idea that notions of sin, conscience and forgiveness are not the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church.

In his messages to the pope, among other things, Scalfari had asked him whether “God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith.”

Francis seemed to hint in his response that those who don’t believe are not necessarily excluded from God’s forgiveness.

“Given that — and this is the key point — God’s mercy has no limits, if you go to him with a sincere and repentant heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience,” Francis writes in his letter.

“Sin, even for those who have no faith, is when one goes against their conscience,” he added. “To listen and to obey to (one’s conscience) means to decide oneself in relation to what’s perceived as good and evil. And this decision is fundamental to determining the good or evil of our actions.”

Speaking about the church’s relationship with Jews, Francis stresses that Christians, and humanity as a whole, should be grateful that Jews have “kept their faith” despite “the terrible tests of the past centuries.”

In the letter, the Argentine pope also addresses one of the themes of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who had often condemned “relativism” — the incapacity of modern societies and men to recognize any “absolute truth,” such as God — as one of the evils of our time.

For Francis, there is no such thing as an “absolute truth” if that means a truth that can stand by itself “without any relationship.”

“Truth, according to the Christian faith, is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is a relationship.”

Francis concludes: “Despite the slowness, the infidelity, the errors and sins it committed and might still commit against its members, the Church, trust me, has no other meaning and goal but to live and witness Jesus.”

About Alessandro Speciale

Alessandro Speciale has been covering the Vatican since 2007 and wrote for Religion News Service from 2011-2013. Born in Rome, he studied literature at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, and journalism at City University, London. He has appeared as an expert on Vatican affairs on CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera English.

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  1. Well since the Pope is talking about folks like me, I thought I’d respond to this one.

    I find this pope to be the most likable one since I’ve been noticing popes. I enjoy the theatrics of his humility, and philosophically he’s certainly a breath of fresh air. Still, I don’t pay him too much mind. He’s not MY pope after all.

    So here we have a very politically powerful and (apparently) very nice man in ritual garb, telling me that I should obey my conscience. Well, okay. I was sort of going to do that anyway. But here’s the thing: while I’m all for obeying my conscience, I don’t think it’s enough. You have to INFORM your conscience as well. MANY atrocities have been performed by men and women with clear consciences after all.

    I think that the Catholic Church has been a bit of a mixed bag as a resource for informing one’s conscience. Still he’s opening a dialogue and that’s encouraging.

    In a way I think it was pretty brave of him to say that. Here is a guy who is the head of the one of the oldest, most tradition-bound religious institutions in the world, and he’s openly acknowledging that people who don’t believe in God have a moral center. This is awesome! It gives political credence to the notion that obedience to divine authority is not the one and only path to morality. I’m SO glad. When I read the blogs about this point, almost NO ONE mentions this. It’s just overlooked. I think it’s the core reason that this is even news. THE POPE is saying that atheists have a conscience even though we don’t believe in God!

    As an atheist, I must say that this does feel like real progress ! This act also tells me that atheism has become too big to be ignored any more. First Obama mentions us in his inaugural address, and now the pope gives us credit for moral reasoning. Next thing you know, politicians will start pandering for our votes! Wouldn’t THAT be something!

    Still I wonder about his motives though. Did he say that to credit us with virtue? Did he say it to imply that if we would only follow our conscience we would convert to Christianity? Did he say it to support us in our own moral struggles, and to offer solidarity? It’s really hard to say.

    The part where he said, God forgives “those who do not believe and those who do not seek to believe” is a bit insulting. In privileging his own assumption of God’s existence, he is tacitly dismissing my non-belief. The more annoying part is that he is assuming an authoritative tone here. I don’t consider his authority to be legitimate. He’s not MY spiritual leader. It’s a bit like being scolded by your friend’s dad.

    Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

    I suppose, if I could, I’d tell him that he should obey his conscious too. We all struggle with that one after all, so I’ll offer that advice in support of the guy. He has a really important job after all. A lot of people take what he says really seriously, and that has to be a lot of pressure. So yeah, Francis, right back at you! I wish you luck with your moral dilemmas! Remember, the bible offers a lot of great insight, but the people who wrote the bible lived in a VERY different world than you do, so take that old book with a healthy grain of salt.

    And remember: Doubting our beliefs is an act of conscience. The more power we wield, the more we vitally important that we consider that we might be wrong.

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