On September 11, 2013, Pope Francis wrote a Letter to Those Who Do Not Believe, responding to Eugenio Scalfari, in answer to several questions, including whether or not God forgives and saves those who don’t believe in Him. Francis writes with admirable goals to “confirm the faith in Jesus Christ,” and to “arouse a sincere dialogue” with non-believers. By Francis’s design, the letter is gently evangelistic.
Before critiquing the primary controversial point of the letter, allow me to make a couple of observations.
First, I commend the gentle and gracious tone of the letter. Stemming from the stated desire to arouse a sincere dialogue with non-believers, it is evident that the letter is written with that goal in mind. In this respect, the letter provides a positive example of how we can design our communication with purpose and stay faithful to that goal by choosing our words carefully. Words matter, and we shouldn’t employ them carelessly.
Second, as is evident in this letter, Catholic doctrine, historically, relies on church tradition and personal experience as much as on appeal to the Scriptures. It is precisely at this point that this letter – along with Catholic doctrine – goes astray (Sometimes our sentiments get in the way of our exegesis). Francis’s assertions seem to come first from the teachings of the church, and second, from personal experience. In this way, his evangelism gets started on the wrong foot. Beginning a dialogue based on the wrong presuppositions is not helpful to the efficacy of the dialogue (unless the purpose for dialogue is only dialogue itself).
While these two aspects of the letter are noteworthy and symptomatic of bigger issues, the issue that has caught the attention of some is the statement that “God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The question for those who do not believe in God is to obey his conscience. Sin, even for those who have no faith is when one goes against their conscience.”
At first glance, the letter seems to be employing a similar tact to the one Paul used in Romans 1-3. The Jewish people were under the (Mosaic) Law, while Gentiles were under law (ethics in general). Neither the Law nor law in general were designed to save, but rather both were devices God used in order to show people their spiritual need. Francis may be appealing to that concept by his reference to conscience here.
However, where Francis fails to draw the point to its conclusion, Romans 3:20-24 takes the final needed step:
…by the works of law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from law, righteousness of God has been revealed, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus…
In other words, Scripture teaches that following one’s conscience (even regulated by Law or law) can’t bring forgiveness, but only underscores the universal need for forgiveness.
In contrast to the words of Paul, Francis has presented in his letter an incomplete gospel. Even though we may desire, in our compassion, to communicate sensitively and sympathetically to unbelievers, Frances has no more authority than you or I to soften the words of Scripture.
The most compassionate the thing we can do for unbelievers is to represent God’s word accurately to them, and as Peter puts it, we should always do so with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet 3:15).