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

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.

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

  1. “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank Him for all He has done. Phil. 4:6 The Holy Father is in fact a Holy man and I am grateful for his witness as a disciple and apostle of God.

  2. “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.”

    This. Exactly. The sort of God who wraps himself in flesh and dies to save humanity is not the sort of God who lets anyone who sincerely seeks the truth slip through the cracks.

  3. “Listening to it[their conscience] and abiding by it means making up one’s mind about what is good and evil.”

    Isn’t making up one’s mind about what is good and evil the reason why Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the garden? Is Francis’ goal simply to encourage people to avoid sin? If that’s the case then what was the point of Jesus’ coming? Certainly the Jews had the law and were encouraging people to avoid sin before then.

    • It depends on how you want to interpret what he’s saying. For it to be orthodox in my view, it must be about God’s prevenient grace speaking to us even when we don’t know Him.

    • In John 8 it is a particular type of conviction and conscience.
      Convicted being the keyword.
      There is also a state of conscience that is termed seared found in 1 Timothy 4:2.
      Seared being the key word.
      Would those conditions effect the choices, works, and beliefs of a person?

  4. The Apostle Paul would side with Pope Francis on this one: Romans 2:13-16 is not far away from what the Pope said. Although Paul was talking about pagans rather than atheists, the thrust of the argument is the same.
    By the way, in Scotland – with the strong influence of the Reformation in our history – only a few of the most extreme reformed Protestants would hold to the “no conscience” view. Most would accept the reality of conscience, even if only as a reason for condemnation. Is the tendency different in America?
    “People outside of Christ are expected to be utterly wicked.” Yes, I recognise this view – some people give the impression that they have never met a non-Christian, only knowing about them in theory, or they may have seen one once in a zoo – but even then, their view would usually be more that all the non-Christians’ thoughts and motives are tainted (with selfishness, which of course never affects Christians!) than that they can do nothing recognisably good.
    So I think you’ve overstated the opposing view, but I’m with you on the main point you are making.

    • I think the overstatement does actually happen in how people talk theoretically even if they recognize in the practical everyday that of course non-Christians do good things.

    • “People outside of Christ are expected to be utterly wicked.”
      That is not what Christ said.
      It is not what the apostles taught.
      It is not what the OT teaches.
      Christ said;
      Luke 11:13
      So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Luke 11:13 & Matthew 7:11

  5. Thanks for including me in this conversation. While most of your intuitions here are right, you do have some slippage in your terminology. While your use of total depravity (this is not only a Catholic position but most Christians until recent times including Wesley, Aquinas, and others…previnient grace makes is able to overcome depravity but does make it not exist) and nihilism seem confused to me, as I explained in my post, all that you have said about the failure of moral reasoning falls under the noetic effect of sin. Catholics and Wesleyans have a weaker doctrine of the noetic effect, but even Aquinas said that the intellect would only reach the truth “after a long time and with an admixture of error.”

    By the way, the noetic effect of sin isn’t overcome in the saved person. They just learn to depend upon revelation. So a thoroughgoing Protestant would not want to trust their own reasoning any more than the atheist’s.

    All that to say that the Protestant misreading of the Pope’s letter is indeed because they don’t have a notion of the conscience always being aided by God no matter the condition of the soul (of course, Catholics too believe that conscience can be well formed or malformed.

  6. I’m not an expert, but from what I’ve read about Calvinism, I thought the original doctrine was called “utter depravity.” It’s not supposed to imply that human beings apart from God’s grace are totally inept at righteous works, but that every aspect of human nature is flawed, though it is still entirely made in God’s image, and therefore capable of righteousness, although it’s diminished in comparison to what’s possible when in communion with the Holy Spirit. I think this relates somewhat to your theory of total providence, Morgan.

    • I guess I’m wary of locking myself into an anthropology that is too dependent on the Augustinian “original sin” interpretation of Genesis 3. I prefer to say that people can be good or bad in varying degrees. Insofar as they’re good, it’s God acting through them. Insofar as they’re Christian, they know that God is acting through them and consciously cooperate with God’s goodness.

    • TULIP Calvinism refers to total depravity. And you do find people arguing that even our attempts to do good are tainted by sin that clings to them.

      • I’m aware of that position (it’s what I was taught after I first became a believer) but my understanding was that it’s a more extreme version of what Calvin originally intended. But like I said, I’m very much not an expert of any theological school.

    • Sounds good. I’ll check these out. Does what I have here sound more or less legit as an understanding of “conscience”?

      • The “prevenient” grace angle certainly sounds Methodist. Catholics argue more, I think, for a natural law, built into us by God, view. I’m not sure they would go as far as you do in saying that if you follow your conscience it is like following a path that will lead you to Christ. But I do think Pope Francis is arguing that it can keep you from sin.

        • The main thing for me is that any talk of a “conscience” has to presume that we’re talking about God speaking to us and not anything that is derived in us.

  7. Don’t get too excited!
    The Vatican will most likely put out an explanation.
    They usually do when this and other Popes say something that confuses the masses. I am sure what some will hear and what the Pope meant by the statement are very different.
    The secular media does not understand the Christian Faith or it’s teachings so they usually get what is said wrong.

    The full letter of Pope Francis can be read at the link provided.
    http://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2013/09/11/news/the_pope_s_letter-66336961/

    The full Catechism of The Catholic Church is available online.

  8. I could literally see the walls crack and tumble down, and a doctrine of unconditional love and acceptance flow through! Trusting the providence of Almighty God (not your gut or intuition) and the power of the Holy Spirit to convict the hearts of mankind, acknowledges all human beings as viable and worthy (without placing labels) for His Glory (whether they themselves accept God as their creator or not). You will take some heat for your “universal conscience”, Morgan, but this is one of my favorite blogs to date, on so many levels.

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