It likely doesn't matter much to the atheists of the world that -- of all people -- Pope Francis is on their side. But he is. And that's a cool thing for all of us.
In a message delivered Wednesday via Vatican Radio, the new pontiff distinguished himself with a call for tolerance and a message of support – and even admiration – toward nonbelievers.
Naturally, a guy whose job it is to lead the world's largest Christian faith is still going to come at his flock with a Jesus-centric message. But he's taking it in an encouraging new direction. In his message, Francis dissed the apostles for being "a little intolerant" and said, "All of us have this commandment at heart: Do good and do not do evil. All of us. 'But, Father, this is not (a) Catholic! He cannot do good.' Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must."
And the pope spoke of the need to meet each other somewhere on our on common ground. "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. 'But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!' But do good: we will meet one another there." It was a deeper affirmation of his comments back in March, when he declared that the faithful and atheists can be "precious allies... to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation."
That's a message that's vastly different from Catholicism's traditional "We're number one!" dogma. Six years ago, the Vatican reasserted the church's stance that while there may be "elements of sanctification and truth" in other faiths, "that fullness of grace and of truth... has been entrusted to the Catholic Church." In other words, close but no cigar, everybody else.
The pope was not, of course, addressing the non-believers of the world in his Wednesday sermon, or trying to win them over. Instead, he was telling his Catholics about the importance of cutting outsiders slack. And it's a hugely important message for Christians to hear. It's not about being right. It's about being loving. And it's a necessary concept, one that needs to be expressed again and again, in a world in which the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in Virginia is justifying his repulsive hate speech against gays and lesbians because "I'm a Christian, not because I hate anybody, but because I have religious values that matter to me." Coming within a week when atheists have been stepping into the spotlight here in America with their own messages of live-and-let-live tolerance, it's downright refreshing to get a similar message from the biggest Christian in the world.
There are plenty of atheists out there who will no doubt take the pope's message with a grain of salt or even flat-out disdain. The last thing somebody who doesn't believe in heaven could possibly need is some guy in a funny hat telling them that they're okay in God's eyes anyway. But maybe, whatever we believe or don't believe, we can consider that the man is on to something when he speaks about "the culture of encounter."
Francis notes that the apostles were "closed off by the idea of possessing the truth," an arrogant certainty that no one group currently has a monopoly on. Where we find each other is in practicing tolerance for our differences, and in finding the commonality of our values. "Doing good," Francis says, "is not a matter of faith."
It's not that faith, for the faithful, doesn't matter. It's that belonging to a church isn't what saves us. It's belonging to each other.