Francis: A Pope Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers Can Believe In

Nicholas S. Molinari

Who am I to judge? Love and care for one another. Do unto others as you’d wish to be done unto you. Care for the poor, the infirm, the sick, the dying (we’re all in that process already), the oppressed, the suppressed, the depressed, the disenfranchised, the ignorant, and the misinformed. Truly, there is no end to this list.

I was a priest in my youth; virtually all my friends and acquaintances had been priests and nuns, the latter more properly called “Religious Sisters.” After leaving the priesthood and eventually marrying, my (our) friends and acquaintances tended to be peers, former priests, and former nuns.

For some years now, virtually all our friends and acquaintances have been nonreligious—declared atheists, agnostics, or freethinkers. Ironically, we have found our most recent cadre of friends to be for the most part more Christian than our former associates. I am using the term Christian as an adjective. Many atheists might find it offensive to be called a Christian, but I am referring to the qualities that are supposed to define what a Christian is or ought to be. I’ve discovered those to be kindness, generosity, compassion, empathy, the spirit of helpfulness, and much more. When I tell my unbelieving friends that they are better Christians than most Christians I have known, they do not take offense; they understand my meaning.

Despite the obvious chasm of thinking and motivations separating the people described above, there is, or should be, a significant overlapping of values and vision. The blended area may be named “humanism.” In my view, a Christian without humanist values is a mostly empty shell of a person—and often hypocritical to boot. Meanwhile, atheism without humanism lacks the empathy that connects people to each other. My experience with unbelievers has been extremely pleasant, enriching, and very informative. My sense is that these friends do good because doing good to and for others is simply the right thing to do. So, they engage in charitable and selfless activities because of shared humanity and without any expectation of an eternal reward. My experience as a priest impressed me with the sad reality that many parishioners were motivated only by hope of eventual bliss or by fear of an endless hell. That probably remains true for many people in the pews today!

I often fantasize about the possibility of a bridge between belief and unbelief, between believers and unbelievers. Is it possible that this bridge, this link, this connection … might turn out to be a humble Argentine Jesuit now named Pope Francis? He seems to be reaching out to everybody, without expecting or “pontificating” about conversion to Catholicism or to any religion. It appears that he is in love with people, pure and simple.

The unbelievers I know and love—and their wider community of peers—can be a reservoir of wisdom and power for a creaky old institution currently being led, urged, and cajoled by a pope who is more humanist than dogmatist. Yes, Pope Francis has much to learn, since his entire life from its beginning to the present has been geared to and influenced by religion. However, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, he is a man of openness and welcome.

His off-the-cuff comments flying at thirty thousand feet above sea level have been extraordinary as well as confusing. In July 2013, it was “Who am I to judge [gay priests]?” In February 2016, he engaged in some verbal legerdemain that excited progressives and infuriated conservatives in the hierarchy. If altitude can influence attitude—whereby a world leader might happen to “slip” and say what he really thinks—I’m all for that leader staying aloft in rarified air indefinitely and teaching his flock from on high. Then we’ll truly have that “man upstairs.”

Among the articles about Francis’s February 2016 flight of fancy is one in the New York Times of February 19, 2016, titled “Francis Says Contraception Can Be Used to Slow Zika.” Countless similar essays and articles are easily Googled. Numerous reporters understood the pope’s words much differently than did those after-the-event polemicists who hastened to “clarify” Francis’s thinking. I think Francis is open to an objective conversation about contraception. That should have happened in the early to mid-1960s, when John XXIII and Paul VI established and endorsed the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. When the majority came up with its “liberal” opinion that the Church should permit contraception, Paul VI jettisoned it. At that moment, it seems that contraception suddenly became an intrinsic evil, and the simpleminded obsession of the entire hierarchy!

No doubt there are intrinsic evils in the world: murder, rape, slavery, pedophilia (the bishops missed that one!), and many others. But what’s so bad about contraception? Atheists know with logical certainty that contraception is not an intrinsic evil; nor is it an evil at all. People who value logic over antiquated doctrine realize the harmful ramifications of diehard opposition to a couple’s exercise of practical judgment in the use of contraception. No need to enumerate them all, but they include overpopulation, degradation of Earth’s resources, widespread poverty, and physical, financial, and emotional exhaustion while feeding, clothing, and schooling large families. These few consequences will serve to illustrate my point.

This particular issue is very much a humanist issue. A man such as Francis may be open to rational argumentation, devoid of doctrinal shackles, that originates with unbelievers. But there are so many other issues of common interest: climate change; the arms trade; despoliation of soil, air, and water; extinction of uncounted and unknown species of flora and fauna. Ultimately, ourselves!

Unfortunately, Francis is unlikely to get sufficient support from a hierarchy created in large part by his ultraconservative predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This is why he needs the input and support of unbelievers who view reality rationally, scientifically, and without doctrinal bias!

Who could have expected any such person to arise, any such philosophy to gain traction, any such logic to present itself so kindly in today’s world of black-and-white? Who expected Francis to enter stage right? And then to command stage left, right, and center! But this unique window of opportunity will evaporate with Francis’s death.

As a long-disillusioned former Roman Catholic priest, I never before experienced so genuine a rendition of what that historical or fictional character (Jesus Christ) stood for, taught, and lived for. Yet in this moment of space-time, I’m compelled to admit, with a dollop of caution, that there is a new dynamic alive and well in the world today. Call it the “Francis Effect.” I cannot remember any such extraordinarily significant humanist “mover” in my lifetime, other than possibly the jovial and lovable John XXIII, who died in 1963.

So why not drop, for this moment in time, our philosophical and psychological armor? Can we acknowledge this new force of nature calling us all to fraternal humanism? A humanism of mind, of heart, of action? This pope happens to love everybody. That fact in itself is seductive as well as disconcerting, because many people cannot acknowledge their own lovability. Nonetheless, Francis insists upon loving all of us. If there’s something wrong with that or with him, I choose to be as wrong as he.

I think we have in our midst a personal symbol of what we as a species long for. Surely all humanists, whether believers or unbelievers, can link arms and join forces to fight modern-day slavery, the exploitation of women and children, the slaughter of civilians, the interrelated crises of displaced people, refugees, and millions of homeless barricaded in a new style of concentration camps,
as well as other multiplying threats to humanity and to our home planet.

The practical, twofold question remains: “Should atheists, agnostics, freethinkers reach out to Francis in common cause, and if so, how?”

Nicholas S. Molinari

Nicholas S. Molinari had a brief career as a Roman Catholic priest before he turned to a longer one in the automobile industry. He now works to promote humanist values through writing letters and articles.


“My experience as a priest impressed me with the sad reality that many parishioners were motivated only by hope of eventual bliss or by fear of an endless hell.”

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