Since his elevation to the head of the Catholic faith, I have become a fan of Pope Francis — a pontiff who has become truly revolutionary in his faith and his lifestyle. As someone raised in the Catholic Church, I have never seen his equal. He has washed the feet of a Muslim female prisoner, declined the pomp and formality of past popes, and remained a humble priest in his lifestyle. Now, Pope Francis has written a long letter to a non-Catholic saying that he believes that even atheists can go to heaven and that God cares more about your heart than your profession of religion. At one time, such views would have gotten you burned at the stake. Even today, conservatives in the Catholic Church, like those associated with Opus Dei, are grumbling about this new Pope. Mark recently discussed the same view of the Pope on non-believers and now there is a report of a possible consideration of dropping celibacy for priests.
What is interesting is to see the continued effort to make Pope John Paul a saint when Pope Francis may be the most truly revolutionary man to ever hold that religious office. In his letter to the founder of La Repubblica newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, Francis stated that non-believers would be forgiven by God if they followed their consciences. He said “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience. . . . Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.”
It is a remarkably tolerant and enlightened view of faith at a time of extreme orthodoxy and religious intolerance. It is all the more remarkable given the increasingly antagonistic language directed against non-believers. There is obviously a rising concern among political and religious leaders that faith is declining in society. Thus, even though the non-religious is now a majority in places like England, politicians are ratcheting up such rhetoric. The Pope’s words are in stark contrast to those of people like Tony Blair with his comparisons of atheists and agnostics to terrorists.
The Pope’s reforms also now include the possibility of allowing priests to marry — a major change in religious doctrine. Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s second-in-command, told Venezuela’s El Universal newspaper that celibacy is not dogma. As such, it is not unchanging divine law. Many have argued for years that marriage could bring a broader array of people to the priesthood and reduce the sexual scandals that have plagued the church.