By Isaac Butler
I am in the minority amongst my friends for not being all that impressed with Pope Francis push to reform the rhetoric of the Catholic Church while leaving the substance exactly the same. It doesn't surprise me that my devout friends (including but not limited to Catholic family members of mine who are ecstatic to have a Pope who isn't constantly embarrassing them) are happy with him. But I've been surprised by how many secular lefties are over the moon every time Francis offers to baptize an illegitimate child or says something nice about teh gayz.
It's not that I think rhetoric is nothing or is worthless, obviously. His emphases on tolerance and poverty are both good. That said, my quibble has largely been with the policies and beliefs of the Catholic Church (and, you know, the whole covering up of widespread child abuse). My beef with the rhetoric has simply been that it expresses those beliefs and policies.
To whit, this story in yesterday's Guardian, headlined "Pope Francis Tells Atheists to Abide by Their Own Consciences." That sounds nice, don't it? As an atheist who is generally respectful of people of faith, it's nice to see a leader of a major faith being all respectful back. Hey that's great:
Responding to a series of questions asked in the summer by Scalfari, who describes himself as an interested "non-believer", Pope Francisused his trademark conciliatory tone to discuss the Catholic church's attitude to atheists, urging those who do not share his faith to "abide by their own conscience" and reminding them God's mercy "has no limits".
Except, as the article points out just a sentence or two later, that's not actually what Francis said. Or rather, it's not what he meant:
Francis recalled Scalfari had asked him whether God forgave those "who do not believe and do not seek to believe".
"Given – and this is the fundamental thing – that God's mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart," the pope wrote, "the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience. There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one's conscience. Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one's mind about what is good and evil."
The Catholic Church has specific and codified ways that one is meant to approach God with a sincere and repentant heart. They are, in the Church's mind, the only legitimate ways to do so. So what Francis actually said was that God's mercy knows no limits if you are a Catholic. And if you are not, you are going to Hell. But would you please, along the way, try not to do evil in this world and maybe we can all get along. For this we should celebrate?
Pope Francis even made the mistake of implying that good works could save everyone and had to walk it back:
In May, however, relaxed remarks during a homily, which appeared to imply that non-believers could be "saved" if they did good, prompted a swift clarification from the Vatican that he meant nothing of the kind.
The pope had had "no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation", it said, adding: "They cannot be saved who, knowing the church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her."
Who knows what's going on here? It could be that the Pope is actually far more tolerant and progressive on these issues than the institution he heads and what we are learing is that the institution is even more powerful than the man they appointed to run it. It could be that the Pope genuinely wants to bury the hatchet while still reserving the right to believe that there's a one true faith and the rest of us are condemned to Hell for not accepting it. It could be this is all propaganda. It could be he's trying really hard to abide by that "judge not lest ye be judged" thing, but the job description of his office makes that really hard because he has to be the spokesman for a belief system that's, you know, filled with all kinds of judements and he's doing the best he can. Again, who knows?
The substance of the Church and its doctrines remains the same. Am I glad that we no longer have a Pope who was a member of the Hitler youth and personally connected to the coverup of child sex abuse? Yes. Am I glad we no longer have a Pope who told rape victims during the Serbian wars to not get abortions so as not to compound the tragedy of the War? Yes. Am I glad he's not claiming Auschwitz as a Cathloic Holy Site? You betcha. But let's just stop for a moment and think about the curve we're grading on here.
UPDATE: A Catholic friend writes in to say the following.
"I think you (and a lot of other people) are misreading his comments. He (and The Church) is not claiming that only Catholics are saved or that only Catholics can be good. The claim is more that God is greater (in every way) than any particular understanding of Him, including the Church's own. God can forgive and save whomever he wants; priests do not have the monopoly on acknowledging atonement. Non-Catholics (including atheists) have consciences, and the conscience is one way that God makes Himself known to people, so atheists, if they listen to their consciences and atone for their sins (in a Catholic or non-Catholic way--it doesn't matter, for only the intention matters) can be forgiven by God. Being Catholic is neither necessary nor sufficient as far as God is concerned. It helps, but that's all. Jesus said the thief on cross next to His would be saved, and that thief was not a "Christian" in any sense. "