Being an atheist is fine, as long as you do good, Pope Francis said Wednesday, rocking the worlds of less-tolerant Catholics.
In his homily at the morning Mass in Rome, the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, urged the faithfuls to broaden their horizon, following a principle Jesus taught his disciples. Citing the Gospel of Mark, he described how upset the disciples were at the news that someone outside their group was doing good.
"They complained: If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good," Francis said.
"This was wrong," he added, according to a report from Vatican Radio.
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Labeling the disciples as "a little intolerant," closed off by the idea that "those who do not have the truth, cannot do good," Francis remarked on the importance of the "doing good" commandment. The principle, he said, unites all humanity, beyond religions and ideologies, creating a "culture of encounter," which is at the basis of peace.
Narrow and self-centered attitudes should be banned, as everyone doing good, including atheists, can be redeemed by Jesus, Francis said.
"Just do good and we'll find a meeting point," the pope said, referring to a hypothetical conversation in which someone told a priest: "But I don't believe. I'm an atheist."
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Francis' reaching out to atheists is not a completely new move. A dialogue with non- believers was sought in 1964 by Pope Paul VI. In his debut encyclical Ecclesiam Suams, Paul conceded that some atheists were undoubtedly inspired by "great-hearted dreams of justice and progress."
Adding to a number of unconventional speeches and gestures, Pope Francis' words have sounded almost revolutionary, as they are in striking contrast with the radical views of his predecessor Benedict XVI, who often described atheism as a terrible threat, harshly attacking what he called "aggressive secularism."
In a much-criticized speech during his first papal visit to Britain in 2010, Benedict even appeared to tie atheism to the crimes of the Nazis by stating that the "Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society" had resulted in the Holocaust.
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According to Christian News, reports state that a number of atheists are favorable toward the charismatic pope, mainly because of his humanitarian goals.
"I might not believe in God, but I believe that Catholics and atheists can work together just as all of humanity can work together towards equality and justice when we put the needs of modern people first and the arcane doctrine second," author Luis Ruuska wrote in a Huffington Post article, entitled "Why This Atheist Has a New Hope in Pope Francis."
"He might not be the one to approve doctrine condoning same-sex marriage or approve doctrine changing global attitudes towards women and their rights, but Pope Francis certainly has all of the makings to shift the Catholic Church in a progressive direction; that is, if he wants to," Ruuska said.
Image: Pope Francis greets the faithfuls. Credit: Rossella Lorenzi