When details first emerged about Pope Francis’s liberal policies and attitude towards the nonreligious, I took a few posts to express some tentative optimism. I think recent events validate my first impression—by most accounts, Pope Francis is turning out to be pretty cool.
I don’t think anything quite so cleanly captures the new direction of the Church as the photo above. The shift from ornate robes and traditional throne seat to Francis’s white papal robes and an unelevated, plain chair—the same chairs on the same level as given to his guests—is extraordinarily stark and compelling.
His shift to a more reserved and austere church—from denying Vatican employee their bonuses to insisting that Christians be for the poor, rather than politely discussing theology over tea 1—honestly surpasses anything I could have hoped or expected.
It seems clear that Francis is shifting his focus to the secular world, specifically to alleviating poverty and doing good works here on Earth. This is almost the picturesque example of “common ground” 2 that believers can find with atheists. I often hear atheists questioning whether they’re even welcome to work with believers, and I think it’s an issue seriously worth addressing.
Pope Francis, though, has fortunately made his acceptance and, if I might be slightly bold, esteem towards nonbelievers clear. At a recent Mass, Pope Francis said the following:
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
I’ll happily agree. We may not actually be redeemed by the blood of Christ, but we’re all united around our shared commitment to making the world a better place.
I often find it distressingly narrow when atheists deny any wisdom just because it comes from a religious source. I’m happy to accept that I should focus more on moral action instead of abstract discussion, even if Francis framed this in discussing churches and theology. And I’m happy to recognize that everyone—believer or atheist—is united in doing good on this Earth, even if Francis believes this comes from our shared redemption in Jesus.
We will miss the forest for the trees if we let ourselves be distracted by such petty theological differences. If there’s one thing believers and nonbelievers can share, it’s an understanding that there’s action we need to take to help other people. Props to Pope Francis for pointing that out.
EDIT: Right after I published this, I saw that Kimberly Winston wrote for Religion News Service about atheists liking Pope Francis. Check it out.
Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.