For those of you who don't know, here's what he said:
Given – and this is the fundamental thing – that God's mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart," the pope wrote, "the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience. There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one's conscience. Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one's mind about what is good and evil.Obviously, the notion of God and His mercy doesn't mean all that much to me, but let's not pick nits here. What's important here is that he's not questioning the sincerity or motivations of nonbelievers. This is a pretty big deal. I just recently got into a conversation (which I didn't pursue with any real effort) with a believer who trotted out the old "You were never really a believer" line with me. That has got to be one of the most maddening things when somebody thinks that they know what was in your heart and mind better than you do. I understand why they do that though. It's easier than actually having to explore whether they might be mistaken in their beliefs. Why do that when you can just say that those who changed their minds must not have been doing it right in the first place?
Lately, I don't know whether I'm aiming lower or simply refocusing, but I'm finding myself much more interested in communicating rather than debating. When I would debate theists, I'd find that I'd spend most of my time explaining what atheism even was in the first place. That would often involve having to clear up the usual misconceptions (like how I'm not an atheist because I'm "mad at God"). I think that with some of the friendships that I've made in the last couple of years, I've accomplished this. In fact, I sometimes find myself pleasantly surprised when a believer makes an empathetic comment about what it must be like to be a nonbeliever in a sea of theists.
I think that a man like Pope Francis realizes that threats of hellfire really don't go very far in the industrialized world these days. No doubt that this is one of the reasons why the number of faithful is falling. If they want to keep their system going, they're going to have to change strategy. Obviously, nobody is interested in being burned and tortured forever. And even if you're a devoted Christian, you can admit that many atheists wouldn't leave their faith unless they felt like they had pretty good reasons for doing so.
Obviously, I don't see eye-to-eye with The Pope on a whole lot of things. If I had my way, the Catholic Church, as an institution, would either undergo a major reform or vanish. (And please realize that I would be completely AGAINST any action that would FORCE them to shut down.) Obviously, that's probably not going to happen in my lifetime. For now though, I'll take what he said as a sincere message of reconciliation and empathy. If people like me aren't considered to be de facto villains, and Catholics can acknowledge that I've come to where I have as a matter of my own sincere effort to understand the world around me, then we've made a pretty solid advancement.
I suppose it should be noted that there are some prominent Catholics out there who are going into damage-control mode, just like the last time Francis made a similar statement. I don't worry too much about them, because if the Big Kahuna of Catholicism is saying things like that, then it probably reflects an overall shift in tone of the entire establishment. Or maybe I'm just stupidly optimistic like that.