ESPECIALLY AMONG Catholics who bristled under the traditionalism of Benedict XVI, Pope Francis was widely welcomed as the new leader of the church. His prompt rejection of the trappings of Renaissance royalty, for example — no red Prada shoes for him — led many to expect a needed restoration of simplicity in a faith rooted in the life of a Galilean peasant. Instead of moving into the isolating papal apartments in the Vatican Palace, Francis took up modest rooms in St. Martha’s House, where visitors are offered hospitality. The pope’s personal style soon took on the character of a proclamation. “Preach the Gospel,” he said, citing his namesake St. Francis, “and if necessary use words.”
He has done that, too. When a factory collapse killed more than 1,000 workers in Bangladesh in April, Pope Francis denounced the working conditions in which so much of the affluent world’s clothing is manufactured as “slave labor.” He reminded “the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them.” He called for “a return to person-centered ethics in the world of finance and economics.”
In recent years, as the Vatican dug into conservative positions on matters of sexual morality, a renewed embrace of the church’s social mission seemed about as much as reformist Catholics could hope for. Yet a deeper change seems to be at work. In a recent homily at a Mass attended by Vatican employees and a few guests, Francis showed a willingness to reconcile with those outside the faith — in a way that is unprecedented in recent Catholic theology.
Francis’s immediate predecessors regularly derided what they called the “culture of death” in speaking of those outside the faith. But in a homily in the chapel at St. Martha’s, this pope lifted up what he called the “culture of encounter.” In contrast to the habitual denigration of those of other religions — a mark of Catholic teaching for a generation — the Argentine pope praised every human being as a source of goodness. “Even the atheists?” he asked, giving voice in the homily to his inevitable critics. “ ‘But Father, this is not Catholic! [Atheists] cannot do good!’ ”
That simply, Pope Francis engaged an age-old question: Do we need God to be good? Religious people have emphasized Dostoyevsky’s aphorism that “if God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Look where the atheism of modernity led, they say, pointing to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. In the United States, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, an atheist running for president would draw fewer votes than a member of any other minority, including Muslims. Atheists, with no transcendent horizon, are taken to lack the basis for moral choice. This is the last respectable prejudice.
But Pope Francis notably rejects it. He credits the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus, but unlike preachers (including St. Paul) who restrict the benefit of Christ’s redemption to those who accept it, Francis affirms that it extends to “all of us! Not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”
The world’s atheists, presumably, have not been awaiting a pope’s approval. But Francis is pulling the church away from a dangerous position; any theology that divides humanity into those who are saved and those who are not — between those who can do good and those who cannot — is a violent theology. “This ‘closing off’ that imagines those outside . . . cannot do good,” the pope said, “is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. . . . To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.” Faith in God, the pope reminds us here, is no guarantee of morality.
It has been a long time since popes have incited holy wars, and there is nothing new in the call to tolerate those who believe differently. But Francis’s sermon suggests a movement beyond tolerance toward an authentic pluralism in which the convictions of others are not only allowed, but valued. Instead of opposing others’ beliefs, Francis emphasizes “encounter.” The act of “doing good” is what overcomes intellectual and religious difference. For Francis, this innate capacity for virtue comes from God, but it lives in the “depths” of every heart.
Is it reading too much into a simple homily to imagine a coming shift? In the case of a pope, not necessarily. The reforming openness of John XXIII first showed itself in nuances like this, and the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II followed. It may be happening again.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.