Francis has left the US after what has to be considered highly successful visits to Cuba and the US, success being measured by the tremendous size of the crowds and the very favorable press that he received. There were no major controversies but also no surprises. My impression of the visit is that while Francis still holds on to all the nasty dogma of the Catholic church such as its opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, he would rather not talk about those things and prefers to focus on issues like climate change and wealth and income inequality and poverty, all issues that transcend religious dogma. I think that we secularists should treat him as an influential ally on the issues on which we agree with him while continuing to fight against him on those we don’t.
There is one area of dogma where he seems to be loosening the strings. Back in 2013, soon after his election, Francis said that even people who do not believe in the Christian god, as long as they obey their consciences, will be forgiven and can go to heaven.
Although it got some play in the mainstream media, it was not as much as I thought it should since it strikes me as somewhat radical. After all, the idea that salvation is only possible through acceptance of Jesus and being forgiven by him is a pretty widespread belief in the Christian church. In efforts to be more ecumenical, some denominations have conceded that other paths to heaven via other religions are possible. But the idea that belief in a god is unnecessary would not be acceptable to traditionalist Christians and I am surprised that they have not reacted more strongly.
Within Catholic circles there was some pushback to Francis’s words, with a Vatican spokesperson trying to ‘clarify’ Francis’s remarks while actually obfuscating them, and other commentators suggesting that he did not actually say what the media are reporting.
While several prominent atheist groups welcomed the pope’s remarks, the issue for us atheists is moot. Not believing in a god goes together with not believing in the existence of heaven either so this effort at reassurance is kind of meaningless.
The only ones for whom it might bring some relief are those atheists who are not quite sure of their disbelief and maybe worry about ending up in hell, and the religious friends and relatives of atheists who worry that their loved ones will not be able to join them in heaven. For example, Charles Darwin’s wife Emma, who constantly fretted over his immortal soul because of his unbelief, would have welcomed the pope’s words though since she was a nonconformist Unitarian and not a Catholic, his words might not have had too much authority with her.