Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sept. 11, 2013. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

Pope Francis tells atheists to 'obey their conscience'

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Once again breaking with traditional Vatican protocol, Pope Francis on Wednesday (Sept. 11) penned a long letter to the Italian liberal daily La Repubblica to affirm that an "open dialogue free of prejudices" between Christians and atheists is “necessary and precious.”

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, Sept. 11. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, Sept. 11. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

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Francis' front-page letter was a response to two open letters published in previous months by Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of La Repubblica and an avowed atheist.

The pope's letter is especially notable for its open and honest assessment of the spiritual state of nonbelievers. And for an institution that long claimed sole jurisdiction on matters of salvation, Francis seems to open the door to the idea that notions of sin, conscience and forgiveness are not the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church.

In his messages to the pope, among other things, Scalfari had asked him whether “God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith.”

Francis seemed to hint in his response that those who don't believe are not necessarily excluded from God's forgiveness.

“Given that -- and this is the key point -- God's mercy has no limits, if you go to him with a sincere and repentant heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience,” Francis writes in his letter.

“Sin, even for those who have no faith, is when one goes against their conscience,” he added. “To listen and to obey to (one's conscience) means to decide oneself in relation to what's perceived as good and evil. And this decision is fundamental to determining the good or evil of our actions.”

Speaking about the church's relationship with Jews, Francis stresses that Christians, and humanity as a whole, should be grateful that Jews have “kept their faith” despite “the terrible tests of the past centuries.”

In the letter, the Argentine pope also addresses one of the themes of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who had often condemned “relativism” -- the incapacity of modern societies and men to recognize any “absolute truth,” such as God -- as one of the evils of our time.

For Francis, there is no such thing as an “absolute truth” if that means a truth that can stand by itself “without any relationship.”

“Truth, according to the Christian faith, is God's love for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is a relationship.”

Francis concludes: “Despite the slowness, the infidelity, the errors and sins it committed and might still commit against its members, the Church, trust me, has no other meaning and goal but to live and witness Jesus.”


  1. What exactly does he think we atheists have been doing all this time? Perhaps this is a new concept for the religious – following our own thinking. It’s the way we roll, Popey, and we don’t need some guy to tell us to, or give us permission. Sheesh. Religion is so 200 years ago, dude.

  2. The Pope is simply affirming Catholic teaching (a teaching that seems to have been pushed underground in the last few years or decades) that one is bound to follow one’s properly informed conscience. Some Catholics seem to think that a “properly informed conscience” necessarily leads one into the Church, but I think the Pope is stating that a properly informed conscience might manifest in various ways (as atheism, or theism, for instance).

  3. “Sin, even for those who have no faith, is when one goes against their conscience,” he added. “To listen and to obey to (one’s conscience) means to decide oneself in relation to what’s perceived as good and evil. And this decision is fundamental to determining the good or evil of our actions.”

    This statement affirms the Pope believes that morals are innate in humans and not derived exclusively from religion, which is what is argued by most theologians. A good start.

    I would like everyone to consider if they can live life, love people without the promise of the carrot or the threat of the stick.

    Better Mr. Paul?

    Good day!

  4. Morals are innate in humans because thats how God created humanity.

  5. Nice name for an atheist. But not all atheists , nor religious, are always very good at following the deepest guidance of their consciences . I believe His statement has more depth than you comment suggests. Sometimes we, religious and atheistic, think we are motivated by our consciences but deeper in us lies our real leanings which are only confused by the urgings and messages of the world. Im sure you dig deep below the surface, but I cant assure you not every religious or atheist does more than motivate beyond short term or expedient needs masquerading as conscience. Of course , Im sure those who I would accuse of doing so, would simply suggest it is only who remains shallow.

  6. No, I dont believe this is what the Pope believes. It is NOT what the Church teaches. Unless of course what you mean is that the truth can be derived unknowingly from ones conscious. HOWEVER, the Pope as a Catholic, (you all know he is Catholic , right?) knows that it is from GOD that this conscience is placed unknowingly (to the atheist or nonbeliever), The Pope is not arguing that one simply follow the dictates of whatever an atheist thinks is ok and that person will find salvation. He believes that as the conscience is placed in every man’s soul to do the will of God, by carefully discerning that conscience, every man, even non believer, will do right by God. Thus, as the Church is the family of God, His true religion, is still the source of the salvation of all, including the atheist. I havent spoken to Pope Francis about this lately, but I am pretty sure that is what he is getting at. Unfortunately, the media is more interested in putting a spin on a story than really understanding its meaning.

  7. If morals are innate in man because they are placed in man by the Christian version of God, and initiated via what we call conscience, then why did your God bother to give so many moral laws for man to follow in the Bible? Although if you read the Bible you will read of countless atrocities directed by God, including the murder of men, women, and children, incest, slavery, and even genocide. Good morals lessons from your God?

    Of course I realize the Pope is Catholic. His robe, the country/state he runs, his ability to ‘interpret” Gods will, and make new rules for Catholics to follow, and of course their is the way his followers worship him all make this quite clear.

    I would like everyone to consider if they can live life, and love people without the promise of the carrot or the threat of the stick.

    Better Mr. Paul?

    Good day!

  8. Morals are innate because we know what is good for us will most likely be good for others, and we know what’s bad for is most likely bad for others. Just because you believe some god built morality into humanity doesn’t mean it is true. Besides, if your (I assume christian) god gave us morals, then why doesn’t he have morals himself? *Read* the bible. Don’t cherry pick. Read it. Read about the morality of god.

  9. Ya don’t have to tell us, Frank. It comes natural.

  10. I don’t necessarily disagree with this sentiment, but the real question is whether religion is helpful or harmful in the pursuit of one’s conscience (however one chooses to interpret that). All indications are that atheists are more, not less, moral than religious people. There are many possible interpretations of this–atheists are better educated, more intelligent, and generally have more resources, people in distress often in up in religious groups (like Alcoholics Anonymous), modern individuals have moral codes superior to ancient traditions as found in the Bible, science is superior to prayer when confronted with death and disease.

    But the most interesting possibility is that the very nature of religion makes people behave badly because “God tells them to” or “The end justifies the means” or “Nothing is more important than your eternal salvation” or “God has chosen me to punish sinners.”

  11. Perhaps he means ” Really, it’s ok if you don’t drink the kool aid”.

  12. Now I know what truth is. Truth is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, the infinite torturer devil. In the Old Testament God showed his love for us by mass murdering the human race (flood), mass murdering whole cities and whole nations, mass murdering the first born children of Egypt, etc. God and Jesus are one in being a mass murderer and infinite torturer devil.

  13. Christine, the numbers you quote are diluted because of the sheer number of theist v. a-theist. Some of the greatest minds of the times past and present have been theist (interesting factoid, all the major sciences where started by a theist). While some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century (which outweigh any in history) were committed by a-theist (Stalin, Hitler, Khmer Rouge, etc, etc).

    The reality is people are more or less moral based on the social memes of the environment they are raised in. Christian or atheist, Buddhist or Muslim we all have the same universal ability to become something greater than what we are when we are born. It is those that have influence over us that help form us into who and what we become. We are born in Nature and raised in Nurture.

  14. To Aaron’s list of atheist evil doers and philosophies, we can add Eugenics; the Progressives’ utopian dream of perfecting mankind by eliminating those among us deemed less than on par. Specificly, their dream was to eliminate blacks from our planet. This was the avowed dream of such Liberal saints/eugenists such as Margaret Sanger (reference her Pivot of Society, her The Negro Project, her speech to and in support of the KKK), John Mynard Keynes (reference The British Eugenics Society upon whose Board he proudly served), President Woodrow Wilson who said “giving blacks the right to vote is the root of evil in America”.

  15. Do I understand you correctly? Are you actually stating that, across the board, atheists are more educated, higher morals, etc….

    Atheist, or not, I can’t imagine that any intelligent person would make this statement, unless they were to have actual facts from some sort of study, to back them up.

    Nah. Surely you weren’t just stating blindly, that an entire group of individuals, is point blank at more of an advantage, than another.
    That would have to mean, that there is a specific class of people that belong to this particular group. Akin to saying, all people that like Cheerios, grow taller than everyone else. Wouldn’t it?

    And for the record, I don’t claim to belong to any religious, or non-religious organizations. I believe in me, and what I know is right to do. I am not sure how we got here, could be aliens. But, what do I know. I am surely not as smart as an atheist.

  16. first of all, there are no numbers to quote in christine’s post.
    Secondly, your dig at atrocities committed by atheist was good, yet completely irrelevant. (Those atrocities were not committed in the name of atheism).

    The pope has said that people who do not believe in god (should) have a different way to be moral (a better way, IMO, because it requires one to think for your self).

    So the pope was just stating the bloody obvious. Hopefully he continues that.

  17. aaahhhhh… so close, yet so far.

    you’re accusing someone of lumping an entire category of people on one heap, and how that’s such a bad thing for a person to do.

    then you go and finish your post by lumping all atheists on one heap.

  18. As a group, yes. Obviously there are atheists and theists of all types. However the point is that religion organizations regularly claim that one of the benefits of religion is that it makes you a better person. Yet the data suggest the opposite. It is the theists that make the claim, not me. Indeed the wording of my post went out of the way to make it clear that I don’t claim all atheists are better than theists.

  19. Whoah Whoah! We get Stalin and Pol-pot, but Hitler was a Catholic.

    Look it up!

    The whole “those bad guys were atheists” canard fails simply because for every horrible person of my (non) belief system, I can show you at least one of yours. The real issue here is that ideology (theistic or atheistic or secular) is NOT a guarantee of moral virtue.

    Which is not to say that ideology has NO influence on behavior, but understanding the relationship between ideology and moral/immoral behavior is complex, and pointing fingers is not helpful.

  20. This recent statement by Pope Francis, that an atheist who follows his conscience can go to heaven, is one more proof (among many) that he (or rather the office of the papacy) is the very Anti-Christ spoken of in the Bible. For what can be any more anti-Christian than to say one can be saved by his works and not (as Scripture clearly teaches) by grace alone, through faith alone, in the vicarious atonement of Christ. And this is by no means a recent discovery of mine. The Lutheran Church (i.e. the TRUE LUTHERAN CHURCH)
    has had this a part of their official confession of faith for almost 500 years.

  21. did he said you are not doing it????????……..for your info, his statement is addressed to those who think the opposite.

  22. first of all i want to add that there are atheist who are real atheists and there are those that call themselves atheists. most of them are just rebels who have no clue of either side. they just want to fit in a group. oh, they they pretend to be smart cuz they think all atheists should be smart…idiots.

  23. Come on, REALLY?!

    I have a hard enough time WITH a conscience that it would be a “blessing” if I didn’t even have to have one!

  24. I’m Catholic and I have to say that this Pope has said some disturbing things which go against Catholic doctrine. He has said the greatest evils today are lonliness and unemployment. Which is wrong. He said our conciouses know good from evil, which is wrong (because many have disobeyed intuitive knowledge of right from wrong and created a distance from that acquired knowledge and/or recreated relativistic ideals). Flying a plane into a building may seem right to one’s conscious also. He is not as firm and strict as a pope should be in adhering to the divine moral law which the church has consistently revealed.

  25. He that hath not the Son, the same hath not the Father, (1 John 2:23); and not to have God as a Father, is not to have him at all; and he is known as a Father only as
    he is love, and full of pardoning mercy in Christ.

  26. Same message as the serpent delivered in the Garden of Eden.. “You won’t surely die!” “Follow your heart / conscience.. ”

    I do not trust my heart. I only trust the words given to us by Almighty YHWH.

    The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? – Yeremyah 17:9 (Jeremiah)

  27. The pope is giving a reply to the question whether “God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith.” and his answer is that only God knows the inner heart of man and his mercy is infinite. “For God shows no partiality.” (Rom 2:11). As to his statement about following conscience, “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting hearts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.” (Rom 2:14-16) It is Francis’ mission to declare hope for all persons. May God bless him and us all.

  28. This pope is not reading his bible. How can he say that an unbeliever can do good when the scriptures say otherwise? PSALMS 53:1-3
    1 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.
    2 God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God.
    3 Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

    That is how God describe people who do not believe in His existence. Is he more intelligent that God? If he doesn’t believe in His pronouncement then he is anti-God and anti-Christ.

  29. I’ve never met an atheist. I’ve met a lot of people who claim to be atheists, but always when I’ve discussed the issue carefully with such a claimant, I’ve found a person who is simply an agnostic. There’s an infinite difference between “I don’t know if God exists” and “I know that God does not exist.” The former is a somewhat honest statement about one’s spirit, the latter a profession of a faith no more rational than the faith of the Christian.

  30. Agreed. The pope is diminishing God. God is the Alpha and the Omega. The Pope makes him limited to creating Human souls. He is anti-capitalist which is based on vested risk – a self-policing mechanism that an atheist or a religious person can equally use. He needs to go. He constantly uses words as if they have no context…in the abstract. He in effect says right is wrong and up is down. He is out of touch with Jesus’ actual words. He speaks as if he is God.

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