The Herald Bulletin

October 2, 2013

Jim Bailey: Atheists in heaven? That would be OK with new pope

The Herald Bulletin

---- — The new face of Roman Catholicism is leaving a lot of doors open these days. And a few eyebrows are arching on the part of skeptics.

First Pope Francis reached out to gays, asking, “If someone is gay and is looking for the Lord, who am I to judge him?” Then he opined that the church had too long taken an attitude of condemnation in such areas as abortion, contraception and divorcees remarrying. Seemingly a newly formulated open door policy on the part of the pontiff toward certain segments of society that have been frowned upon for centuries by Roman Catholic tradition.

And now the other shoe. In a long, open letter to the founder of La Repubblica newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, an avowed atheist, the pope stated that non-believers would be forgiven by God if they followed their consciences.

Apologists hastened to comment that the pope hadn’t really said atheists would go to heaven without some sort of repentance; after all, why would they want to go somewhere they didn’t really believe existed anyway?

Of course, as an outsider looking in (I resist the temptation some sanctimonius non-Catholics assume of the position of an insider looking out), I cannot legitimately second-guess Pope Francis’ course of action except to opine that he sees a certain amount of damage control as necessary to shore up a church under siege from a changing world more concerned about the meaning of life than about changeless religious dogma that dates from two millennia ago.

Conceded, the Bible, no matter which version you read, strongly suggests that to inherit eternal life, some sort of relationship with the creator, be it being born again or confession and contrition, is mandatory.

But then, again no matter which version you read, New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus document that he spent his ministerial lifetime seeking out those who were rejected by organized religion and who often lived lives of degradation. He reserved his strongest words of condemnation for those who held the pretense of religious or moral superiority.

Atheists or agnostics, after all, are merely those who have not found relevance in the belief in a source greater than themselves. For some of them it’s a belief they want to force on everyone before belief in a higher power is forced on them.

But if that higher power is able to reach out and touch, to paraphrase the pope, who am I to tell him (or her) where to go?

Many are called, Scripture says, but few are chosen. But God is patient and merciful. The way I see it, it is not up to the pope to determine who we will see when we finally reach the pearly gates.

Or Pat Robertson. Or the Archbishop of Canterbury. Or the president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Or me. Thank God! I have enough to worry about looking out for myself.

Jim Bailey’s column appears on Thursday. He can be reached by e-mail at