NEW YORK – Pope Francis increasingly resembles a gust of fresh air blowing through the musty chambers of the Catholic Church. He looks and behaves like a normal human being. He wears shoes instead of red velvet slippers. He has good taste in books: Dostoevsky, Cervantes. And he has a more humane attitude toward homosexuals, even if he has not opposed church doctrine on sexual behavior.
But the most astonishing thing that Francis has said, in a recent letter to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, concerns non-believers. A non-believer is safe from the fires of Hell, the pope assures us, as long as the non-believer listens to his or her own conscience. These are his exact words: “Listening [to] and obeying [one’s conscience] means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil.”
In other words, neither God nor the Church is really needed to tell us how to behave. Our conscience is enough. Even devout Protestants would not go that far. Protestants only cut out the priests as conduits between an individual and his maker. But Francis’s words suggest that it might be a legitimate option to cut out God Himself.
The Catholic Church would not have survived for as long as it has if it had not been prepared to change with the times. The Pope’s statement certainly is in accord with the extreme individualism of our age. But it is nonetheless a little puzzling. After all, a Christian believer, as the Pope must be, would have to assume that questions of good and evil, and how to behave ethically, are prescribed by church doctrine and holy texts. Christians believe that their views of right and wrong are sacred and universal, and that morality is a collective pursuit.