In a recent audience, where he met with dignitaries from other Christian communities, Pope Francis had a few words to say about ecumenism — a dialogue between different denominations or religious groups in search of common ground.
His speech for the occasion included shout-outs to Jews, Muslims, non-Catholic Christians, and — surprisingly — “those men and women who, although not identifying themselves as followers of any religious tradition, are nonetheless searching for truth, goodness, and beauty.”
The media latched on to those words with interest, proclaiming the pontiff’s intention to create new alliances between the Catholic Church and the “nones.” Was Francis really calling on the irreligious (including the spiritual-but-not-religious as well as Humanists) to “work with believers to build peace and protect the environment”?
My advice to atheists: tread cautiously.
Obviously, Francis is convinced that atheists are utterly wrong in their lack of belief; it’s what you would expect from any major religious leader. And he’s not willing to leave God out of the discussion for the purposes of dialogue with the non-believer. His language subtly highlights the terms of engagement: we won’t be protecting the environment so much as “safeguarding and caring for creation.” And that truth, goodness, and beauty we’re seeking? The Pope makes a point of noting that it’s “the truth, goodness, and beauty of God” in particular, essentially invalidating all the other ways people find meaning in the absence of an omnipotent, omniscient deity.
By itself, that’s not a deal breaker. In the service of a good cause, there’s no shame in ignoring a difference of opinion, and we’re mature enough to handle a few backhanded remarks about our wrong-headed interpretation of the universe, right?
Where we really need to pay close attention is in asking Pope Francis exactly how he expects us to engage with Catholics and other believers. What is he asking us to support?
The language of environmental stewardship and “peaceful coexistence” appeals naturally to Humanist values, but we need to remember the Pope’s conservative Catholic milieu. The Pope’s prescription for healing the world might turn out to be something very different from what most non-believers would find acceptable.
A real red flag is the use of the phrase “defending human dignity,” which often crops up in Catholicism as a euphemism for opposing abortion, banning contraception, and promoting the dogmatic belief that gay people are “broken.”
Any alliance between the Pope and the “Nones” would have to set aside these contentious issues and focus on common goals. That’s not impossible; having witnessed poverty firsthand in Argentina, Pope Francis is expected to be deeply concerned with issues of economic justice and equitable distribution of resources amongst disadvantaged populations. Those are issues many atheists would be glad to get behind. Catholics and non-believers do share common ground, even within the higher levels of Catholic power.
On the other hand, in addressing the non-believers, Pope Francis felt it necessary to point out “how much violence has resulted in recent times from the attempt to eliminate God and the divine from the horizon of humanity.” That attitude doesn’t exactly seem to provide the groundwork for fruitful co-operation. And the longer Francis delays in addressing some of the pressing issues that lead non-believers to mistrust the Catholic Church — issues like the child-abuse cover-ups or the ecclesial overreach into legislative matters like abortion availability and same-sex marriage — the more his stated desire for ecumenism appears hollow.
When you consider those factors, it seems like he’s not interested in a partnership of equals; he has a different approach in mind. It’s the kind where he explains what’s what, while the godless listen, assent, and obey.