VATICAN CITY (RNS) Once again breaking with traditional Vatican protocol, Pope Francis on Wednesday (Sept. 11) penned a long letter to the Italian liberal daily La Repubblica to affirm that an “open dialogue free of prejudices” between Christians and atheists is “necessary and precious.”
Francis’ front-page letter was a response to two open letters published in previous months by Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of La Repubblica and an avowed atheist.
The pope’s letter is especially notable for its open and honest assessment of the spiritual state of nonbelievers. And for an institution that long claimed sole jurisdiction on matters of salvation, Francis seems to open the door to the idea that notions of sin, conscience and forgiveness are not the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church.
In his messages to the pope, among other things, Scalfari had asked him whether “God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith.”
Francis seemed to hint in his response that those who don’t believe are not necessarily excluded from God’s forgiveness.
“Given that — and this is the key point — God’s mercy has no limits, if you go to him with a sincere and repentant heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience,” Francis writes in his letter.