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Pope Francis's Atheist Outreach

The new leader of the Catholic Church is the first pope in recent years to reach out to non-believers instead of demonizing them.

Posted on May 29, 2013, at 5:34 p.m. ET

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Pope Francis made headlines last week when he declared that all men and women, regardless of faith, have been redeemed by Jesus's sacrifice and said that "doing good" is the principle that unites all humanity, beyond the diversity of ideologies and religions:

"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."

This was widely reported as a declaration that atheists could go to heaven after their deaths and the Vatican soon issued an "explanatory note" to clarify that people who know about the Catholic Church "cannot be saved" if they "refuse to enter her or remain in her." At the same time, people "who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his church but sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience can attain eternal salvation."

Pope Francis's well-established stance on non-Catholics (and atheists) is starkly different from those of his predecessors. Before he became pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio discussed atheism with a rabbi friend in the book On Heaven and Earth and expressed similar opinions:

When I speak with atheists, I will sometimes discuss social concerns, but I do not propose the problem of God as a starting point, except in the case that they propose it to me. If this occurs, I tell them why I believe. But that which is human is so rich to share and to work at that very easily we can mutually complement our richness. As I am a believer, I know that these riches are a gift from God. I also know that the other person, the atheist, does not know that.

I do not approach the relationship in order to proselytize, or convert the atheist; I respect him and I show myself as I am. Where there is knowledge, there begins to appear esteem, affection, and friendship. I do not have any type of reluctance, nor would I say that his life is condemned, because I am convinced that I do not have the right to make a judgment about the honesty of that person; even less, if he shows me those human virtues that exalt others and do me good.

The new pope's attitude towards non-believers is quite different from those expressed by the three previous leaders of the Catholic Church:

Pope Benedict XVI: 2005 - 2013.

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In his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Pope Benedict identified atheism as a danger to modern society. "Ideological rejection of God and an atheism of indifference, oblivious to the Creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today," he wrote. "A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism." [emphasis original].

Pope Benedict's most controversial anti-atheist remarks were delivered on a state visit to the United Kingdom in September 2010, Pope Benedict warned against "atheist extremism" and "aggressive secularism" in a speech that also appeared to compare non-believers to Nazis:

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime's attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives.

As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a "reductive vision of the person and his destiny."

Pope John Paul II: 1978 – 2005.

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Pope John Paul II believed that atheism caused a "spiritual void" that "deprives the person of his foundation, and consequently leads to a reorganization of the social order without reference to the person's dignity and responsibility."

In Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, an apostolic exhortation delivered on December 2, 1984, the pope specifically described atheism as sinful behavior:

Exclusion of God, rupture with God, disobedience to God: Throughout the history of mankind this has been and is, in various forms, sin. It can go as far as a very denial of God and his existence: This is the phenomenon called atheism....

With the whole tradition of the church, we call mortal sin the act by which man freely and consciously rejects God, his law, the covenant of love that God offers, preferring to turn in on himself or to some created and finite reality, something contrary to the divine will. This can occur in a direct and formal way in the sins of idolatry, apostasy and atheism; or in an equivalent way as in every act of disobedience to God's commandments in a grave matter. Man perceives that this disobedience to God destroys the bond that unites him with his life principle: It is a mortal sin, that is, an act which gravely offends God and ends in turning against man himself with a dark and powerful force of destruction.

Pope Paul VI: 1963 - 1978.

Pope Paul VI saw atheism as one of humanity's gravest dangers. In a speech to the 31st General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1965, he charged the Jesuit order with combatting the spread of atheism in the world:

We gladly take this opportunity to lay serious stress, however briefly, on a matter of grave importance: We mean the fearful danger of atheism threatening human society. Needless to say it does not always show itself in the same manner but advances and spreads under many forms. Of these, the anti-God movement is clearly to be reckoned the most pernicious: not content with a thoroughgoing denial of God's existence, this violent movement against God attacks theism, aiming at the extirpation of the sense of religion and all that is good and holy.

There is also philosophical atheism that denies God's existence or maintains that God is unknowable, hedonistic atheism, atheism that rejects all religious worship or honor, reckoning it superstitious, profitless and irksome to reverence and serve the Creator of us all or to obey His law. Their adherents live without Christ, having no hope of the promise, and without God in this world. This is the atheism spreading today, openly or covertly, frequently masquerading as cultural, scientific or social progress.

It is the special characteristic of the Society of Jesus to be champion of the Church and holy religion in adversity. To it We give the charge of making a stout, united stand against atheism, under the leadership, and with the help of St. Michael, prince of the heavenly host. His very name is the thunder-peal or token of victory.

Vatican II: 1962 - 1965.

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The Second Vatican Council declared atheism to be "among the most serious problems of this age" in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes, but acknowledged that the behavior of Christians often prompts individuals to reject God:

Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame; yet believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation. For, taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.

In Gaudium et Spes, the Catholic Church repudiates "sorrowfully but as firmly as possible, those poisonous doctrines and actions [of atheism] which contradict reason and the common experience of humanity, and dethrone man from his native excellence," but also attempts to start a dialogue with non-believers about important issues. "[The Church] strives to detect in the atheistic mind the hidden causes for the denial of God; conscious of how weighty are the questions which atheism raises, and motivated by love for all men, she believes these questions ought to be examined seriously and more profoundly."

The document ends by urging believers and non-believers to work together for the common good of the world:

While rejecting atheism, root and branch, the Church sincerely professes that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live; such an ideal cannot be realized, however, apart from sincere and prudent dialogue. Hence the Church protests against the distinction which some state authorities make between believers and unbelievers, with prejudice to the fundamental rights of the human person. The Church calls for the active liberty of believers to build up in this world God's temple too. She courteously invites atheists to examine the Gospel of Christ with an open mind.