What does Pope Francis mean by telling atheists to “abide by their own consciences”?

What does Pope Francis mean by telling atheists to “abide by their own consciences”? September 14, 2013

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013Well Pope Francis probably made some more Christians angry this week with a 2500 word letter to the editor he wrote to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that was reported in a Guardian article I read. He told atheists that the best thing for them to do is to “abide by their own consciences” because “God’s mercy has no limits.” For a certain type of Christian, this kind of talk is pure blasphemy, but I suspect that Francis is talking the way he does because of a major difference in the way that Catholics understand human nature from at least reformed Protestants.

Here is the passage that was quoted from Francis’ letter:

“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 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.”

For reformed Protestant Christians (and the majority of evangelicals today who live under their shadow), there is no such thing as a “conscience” for someone who has not become a Christian, because under the doctrine of total depravity, everyone who isn’t a Christian is presumed to be hopelessly corrupted in their moral sensibilities. So to tell atheists to “abide by their own conscience” is the worst possible advice you could give, basically akin to telling them to “trust their feelings,” which is precisely what most evangelical Christians define themselves against.

Total depravity, in its popular form, is a commitment to total nihilism regarding the potential of human nature apart from Christ’s intervention. People outside of Christ are expected to be utterly wicked. Even if what they are doing looks good to our limited human perspective, what God sees in them is pure wickedness. These are the kinds of things that Luther said in his ferocious 16th century battle with Erasmus. And I suspect that this is why Christians who subscribe to this view of human nature see “compromise” and “negotiation” with non-Christians in political discourse as completely unacceptable, because even if the other side appears to have some valid points, God disapproves them all.

Now admittedly, I have to speculate a little bit about the Catholic view based on my general memory of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and other Catholic theologians. Francis’ assumption seems to be that if atheists really are sincere in their consciences, and they are exposed to the true Christ in a way that is untainted by the distracting sins of Christ’s people, then they will not reject Christ. What they have rejected thus far is presumably a caricature, not the true Christ. So the way to reach out to atheists is not to try to argue and brow-beat but to encourage them to follow their own consciences and pursue the same virtues that one would pursue as a Christian with the hope that so doing, they will end up bumping into the real Jesus.

Basically Catholics seem to trust that when people act in good faith, God will make happen whatever needs to happen for them to come into communion with Him (whereas reformed Christians would say that acting in good faith cannot be done without already being a Christian). Now I don’t think the apparent Catholic assumption is at all equivalent to saying that we can trust our gut instincts or intuitions. But it does involve an assumption that God’s still small voice is not absent from the heart of any human being, however drowned out that voice has become in the midst of competing voices. In other words, I’m presuming the word “conscience” does not refer to an ability or sensibility that we have within ourselves, but rather the voice of God’s prevenient grace, which never stops calling each and every one of us to Him.

Francis would probably say if someone is persistent in rejecting Christ forever, it must mean that they didn’t really follow their conscience. I have written before about my preference for a doctrine of total providence to total depravity. Total providence would mean holding to the same understanding of our absolute dependence on God to do anything good at all, the difference being the assumption that God is doing good all the time through people who don’t know Him.

Based on what I have witnessed, I cannot go along with the nihilistic presumption of total depravity that humans are utterly wicked in a way that transcends our ability to perceive. I have known some very noble atheists. The difference between me and an atheist is not how good we are, but whom we perceive to be the source of that goodness. I’m going to say that everything good I do is God acting through me and hence nothing for which I should receive glory. I honestly believe that I experience far greater joy in doing good with the freedom of not needing to get personal credit for it (a freedom I still haven’t fully lived into).

So I would say pretty much the same thing to an atheist that Pope Francis wrote. Abide by your conscience. Seek to live with integrity. Even if you don’t believe in God, I believe that if you’re sincere in your pursuit of virtue and knowledge, then God will honor that sincerity by revealing Himself to you in whatever way He knows will best reach you. That’s simply how I’ve seen the God I’ve gotten to know treat the people who don’t know Him yet.

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