ROME — Controversy is again stirring over recent comments made by Pope Francis, this time surrounding a letter penned to the Italian publication La Repubblica in response to a question regarding whether God forgives atheists and those who do not wish to seek Him.
The founder of La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist, had written a series of open letters to the pope, inquiring on matters pertaining to faith and eternity. Among his questions to Francis included whether “God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith.”
“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,” the Pope replied in his letter, part of which was printed on the front page of the publication. “Sin, even for those who have no faith, is when one goes against their conscience. To listen and to obey [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.”
Scalfari also asked whether it is sinful to believe that truth is subjective and not absolute.
“I would not speak, not even for a believer, of ‘absolute’ truth, in the sense of absolute as disconnected, lacking any relationship,” the pope stated. “Truth, according to Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore truth is a relationship.”
“This does not mean that truth is variable and subjective–on the contrary,” he continued. “But it means that truth is given to us always and only as a path and a life. … In other words, truth being after all one in the same as love, it requires humility and openness in order to be sought, welcomed and expressed.”
Francis’ words have since stirred controversy over their meaning, as some state with concern that the pontiff was inferring that atheists may enter Heaven. Writer Tim Stanley, a Roman Catholic, opined that the pope’s words are being misconstrued.
“If you arrive at the pearly gates and still refuse to accept that God exists then the odds are that St Peter won’t let you in,” he wrote in a recent article in The Telegraph. “Everyone has to confront that reality at some point in their lives–so only the mad and the stubborn are likely to spend an eternity as unbelievers.”
Stanley said that Francis’ advice was proper in advising atheists to follow their conscience “because that is the path to enlightenment.”
“We Catholics believe that nobody should be compelled to share our faith, hence atheists are at liberty to ‘follow their own conscience,'” he wrote. “But we also believe that ‘conscience’ is not a relativist thing that varies from individual to individual.”
“The conscience is the seed of truth implanted in us by God when we are born, and anyone who listens to it opens themselves up to the possibility of ‘doing good’ and–eventually–to finding God,” Stanley stated. “When we see someone in pain, our conscience tells us to help them. That is the ‘good’ in us. If we feel nothing and do nothing for them, that is the ‘evil’ in us.”
However, Mike Gendron of Proclaiming the Gospel Ministries, a former Roman Catholic, told Christian News Network that Pope Francis’ “is not abiding in the word of Christ” and is “suppressing the truth of God’s word” by advising men to simply follow their conscience.
“Clearly, the pope does not know that the common practice of men is to create their own standards,” he stated. “However, God has established His standard of perfection for entry into Heaven, and all men have ‘missed the mark.’ Scripture says that anything that is not done in faith is sin.”
“[A]ccording to God’s Word, those who renounce God are wicked and they say in their heart that God will not call their sins into account,” Gendron continued, citing Psalms 10:13. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? The conscience and heart are synonymous. Jesus said, ‘What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.'”