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I’m not Catholic, but I’m loving me some pope, these days. Yesterday, on the anniversary of one of man’s unbearable cruelties to man, Pope Francis himself, bucked the system—the very system that put him in front of the world—to reach across a great gap by telling atheists that God forgives those who follow their consciences.
Now, some atheists responded to this olive branch with the suspicion and derision that centuries of religious persecution have honed in them. The Italian Union of Atheists and Agnostics, for instance, gave the pontiff a reply as dry as the Sinai: “What interests non-believers is certainly not ‘forgiveness’ from an entity whose existence we do not trust.”
But the best thing about the pope’s conciliatory missive was that he was certainly not speaking to atheists. Of course, Francis knows that an argument grounded on God’s existence won’t convince atheists of anything—not even the ones paying such close attention to everything he says.
The pope—this delightful pope of modesty and apology and liberation theology—presented an argument to folks for whom God’s existence is sufficient grounding. That is, the pope was writing to believers. Rather than reaching across the gap that runs between believers and non-believers, Il Papa was reaching across the gap that so often runs between a believer’s conviction and love.
This pope’s assertion that the mercy of the God in whom many believe has “no limits” speaks primarily to believers who think of their faith not only as a mechanism that brings them closer to that God in whom they believe, but much closer than everyone else.
Clever. Camouflaged as a response to the rhetorical questions of an agnostic newspaper editor is the invitation to believers to climb down from their high horses. God, says Pope Francis to believers—at least, the God in whom Pope Francis believes—does not regard non-believers as anathema. Why then, is the implication, should you?
This pope is not pushing against atheism’s tendency to reduce religion to the cause of the world’s discord, but against religion’s tendency to reduce itself to the cause of the world’s discord. “It seems clear,” continues the address, “that faith is not unyielding.” Of course, faith is only a part of the life of the faithful. Why bother asserting to an atheist (or an agnostic) who has experienced faith only as something unyielding that faith yields? No, it is to believers that this extraordinary pope says, “The believer is not arrogant.” (Ancillary, but not negligible: if the inverse must also be true, then the arrogant are not believers.)
The truth, the pope avers as a core matter of his religion, is not an absolute, a demand that a metaphysical power lays on everyone. Truth, he insists, is a relationship. More important than a dogma, any dogma, is the accord between two people. One doesn’t have to believe that Francis is the pope to appreciate this dogma.
Eugenio Scalfari, the agnostic to which the pope’s lengthy comments were addressed, got it. The newspaper editor conceded that he hadn’t expected the pope to answer at all, let alone “so affectionately, with such fraternal spirit.”
I think you’re great. No, I think YOU’RE great. Let’s both be great together. That’s some brotherly love, right there. If there’s a God, that’s gotta be the kind of thing it eats up. And if there’s not a God, that’s the kind of thing that we can all eat up, anyway.
Mutual recognition in two people of the warm humanity of the person facing the other direction, regardless of convictions. The believers and non-believers in a world without 9-11 s (or Crusades, or Killing Fields, etc.) must be like this.
Ya gotta love a pope for whom making that world here is more important than a belief in God.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage and My Mormonism. Follow him on Twitter: @fatsodoctor.