Pope insults atheists, comparing them to bad Catholics

February 24, 2017 • 1:00 pm

Yes, yes, Pope Francis is more conciliatory than his predecessors, but he’s still coming out with some howlers. The latest is this, reported by Reuters:

Pope Francis delivered another criticism of some members of his own Church on Thursday, suggesting it is better to be an atheist than one of “many” Catholics who he said lead a hypocritical double life.

In improvised comments in the sermon of his private morning Mass in his residence, he said: “It is a scandal to say one thing and do another. That is a double life.”

“There are those who say ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this and that association’,” the head of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church said, according to a Vatican Radio transcript.

He said that some of these people should also say “‘my life is not Christian, I don’t pay my employees proper salaries, I exploit people, I do dirty business, I launder money, (I lead) a double life’.”

“There are many Catholics who are like this and they cause scandal,” he said. “How many times have we all heard people say ‘if that person is a Catholic, it is better to be an atheist’.”

Well, I’d say that’s as much a criticism of atheists as it is of bad Catholics.  Yet it contravenes what the Pope said in 2013. As CNN reports:

It isn’t the first time the Pope has mentioned atheists, either. In 2013, he raised questions for saying that heaven is open, potentially, to all people.

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone. “‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”

Francis continued, “We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

If taken literally, that last statement contravenes virtually everything I know about Catholic dogma. If you don’t accept Jesus as your savior and fail to confess your sins before you die, you’re not going to Heaven. But atheists never formally confess their sins! In other words, if you’re a good person, you’re going to heaven, and you just don’t need the Catholic Church.

Apparently the Vatican “explained” this statement as follows: “The Vatican later issued a note clarifying that the Pope was simply saying that God’s grace is free to all, even atheists, and urging Christians and non-believers to work together.” But as far as I remember—and Catholics can help me out here—the Church by and large believe in “salvation by grace” (right belief), and if that’s free to all, then apparently salvation is still free to all. Good news for atheists! Even if you lose Pascal’s Wager you can still go to Heaven!

It’s interesting that I’ve never heard someone compare a bad atheist to a believer. On the other hand, I take that back: people like Richard Dawkins are often described by believers as “fundamentalists” who are “operating on faith as well.” What those detractors don’t seem to realize is that what they’re really saying is this: “See, you’re just as bad as we are!”


“Don’t worry, heathens: you can go to heaven, too!”

66 thoughts on “Pope insults atheists, comparing them to bad Catholics

  1. As an ex-Catholic I would actually agree with the Pope here. It is better to be atheist! Maybe he can drive all the lapsed Catholics away from the church.

    1. That is actually quite a good question, although I would guess that Frankie probably does know the answer. I have met quite a few believers who are so steeped in their faith that they cannot conceive of anyone who simply considers that there is no evidence for any of their beliefs. They think that atheists are people who hate god, or wilfully turn away from it, or are too proud to acknowledge it. If one manages to crack the carapace and actually get across one’s true position, their reactions can be quite amusing to witness.

  2. It’s interesting that I’ve never heard someone compare a bad atheist to a believer.

    I can think of several atheists who hold equally wacky and intolerant belief systems to that of the pope. They have driven many of us out of organised atheism.

  3. The Catholic doctrine requires works (though they say that works without faith are empty). Indulgences are like Citizens United – cash as a substitute for works.

  4. I think a more charitable interpretation is that one cannot assess another person’s character by their commit to various rituals and virtue-signaling behavior. One has to instead examine how they treat other people.

    It reminds me of something I’ve heard a number of Jews say, that they would rather their child be a good atheist than a bad Jew.

    1. Both those comments are insults to atheists. Atheists are used as the low bar by which a bad Catholic (or Jew) is measured. “Even worse than an atheist!” doesn’t qualify for a charitable interpretation, IMO.

  5. Not to drag on, but it reminds me of a hadith I heard the host of the Nice Mangos podcast mention about a prostitute who went to heaven while a devout man who kicked a dog went to hell.

    I highly recommend the podcast, btw.

  6. Is not Pope Francis merely proclaiming good medieval Catholic doctrine? That is that most will enter Heaven after a suitable period of soul cleansing in Purgatory. Further, it was believed that time spent in Purgatory could be reduced by good works, pilgrimages, benefactions and the purchase of indulgences.

  7. I know he belongs to the Catholic club, but he could extend his criticism to all Christians. Very few people who call themselves Christians follow Jesus’s teachings (which could be further extended to countries that claim to be Christian nations).

  8. Yes, we can all go to heaven. It’s just that Catholics get preferential sitting. On the right, if i remember doctrine.

    And they say grace while atheists just look furtively across the table at each other.

    1. I resemble that remark. It’s rather fun to catch the eye of another atheist across the table (or church).

  9. You can read the official dogma on the Vatican website, but fair warning, it’s just as long and boring as you think. Although entertaining from a surrealistic POV. I haven’t gone to specifically look this up, but I can tell you, after 12 years of Catholic school and a lifetime of living with Catholics, that the Church certainly teaches that you’re going to hell if you’re not baptized a Catholic. No, you don’t have to go to confession, or even get the last rites–that will just cost you extra time in Purgatory. It’s the baptism that counts, which gets rid of your Original Sin.

    So when the Pope made the statement about atheists getting into heaven, I wasn’t surprised when the Vatican came out and tweaked that a bit. Francis is just trying to make Catholicism sound better, frankly, and that’s at least better than some of his predecessors. It figures too: It’s hard to have ecumenical meetings and such if you lean to hard on the fact that you think everyone you meet with is going to hell.

    BTW, there are a few things, a very few, that I actually like better about my hereditary religion, and that’s the point Jerry touched on re grace getting you into heaven. This was not correct. The Catholic Church does require you to actually act like you mean it. No predestination, no getting into heaven *just* by grace. You at least supposedly have to live by your alleged beliefs like you mean it. I give them credit for that. The other way around is absolutely disgusting.

  10. “There are many Catholics who are like this and they cause scandal,” he said. “How many times have we all heard people say ‘if that person is a Catholic, it is better to be an atheist’.”

    This looks ambiguous to me. It could mean that it’s better to be a well-behaved atheist than a wicked Catholic. OR it could mean that a wicked Catholic is behaving like an atheist, and so might as well be one.

    I originally thought it meant the former — a kind of pro-humanism statement– but then I saw some mainstream press spinning it the other way. That’s the more common trope, the atheist-bashing one.

    1. I also interpreted it in a more generous light – a recognition of hypocrisy in the wicked Catholic’s position that the atheist doesn’t have.

    2. From what we know about Francis, I actually do think he meant it in the more benign sense, i.e., it’s better to be a decent non-believer that a crooked believer. Of course in today’s Catholic (and religious in general) climate, the interpretation is going to be most often the other one.

      What I don’t understand is just how the same group of cardinals that elected Ratzinger then elected Francis in the first place. Nonetheless, I think he’s a welcome breath of fresh air.

  11. An atheist can admit a mistake but he can’t confess a sin because that would involve disobeying a person who doesn’t exist.

  12. “But to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.”

    I quite literally laughed out loud when I read this quote the other day. And then to read people describing it as “warm” towards atheists (see, e.g., the WP), when it’s about as back-handed a “compliment” as you can get.

  13. My Catholic friend approached her priest after I pressed her on the idea of grace. She said that he told her that at the moment of death, Jesus will appear and you’d have to accept him to get into heaven so I guess you could be a serial killer, child molester and if you say “sure, I’m down with you Jesus”, into heaven you get.

    1. With, to be fair, true repentance yes. That is the dogma. Infinite forgiveness.

      Don’t miss the deadline though or it’s eternal torment. Gotta think fast!

    1. And not for the first time. I almost think Francis expects this to happen and is just happy to get out his more unorthodox views when he can, whether or not they’ll later be “clarified.”

      1. Apparently he faces a bit of a campaign from conservative clerics in Rome to undermine him because they think he is too liberal on various things and especially on family matters – e.g. allowing divorcees to participate in communion.

        1. Interesting. Popes can’t be fired, can they? 😉 As I mentioned above, I was amazed that he was elevated to popeship in the first place. Seems like the cardinals were very motivated to get Ratzinger out of sight and mind ASAP.

          1. I live in Argentina, as the only unbeliever among very Catholic descendants, in-laws and most friends. A few hours before the white smoke signals came out, I was thinking aloud: “#Our# cardinal is not one of the main candidates, but why would they NOT elect him?”. My most conservative daughter-in-law reacted: “For goodness’s sake, let Bergoglio not even be considered!”.
            So she was very disappointed with my “choice” coming true, but she preferred not to tell me her reason(s). I didn’t understand her at that moment; soon I did.

  14. “Catholics can help me out here”

    Happy to. Most pertinent to the question of the Catholic Church’s stand on salvation is the famous (at least among Catholics) example is Father Leonard Feeney, a Jesuit priest who was excommunicated in 1953 for teaching the strict doctrine of “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” (“outside the Church there is no salvation”). The Catholic Church’s position on this is, as has been since at least the 13th century, that “baptism is necessary for salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church), but allows a couple of pretty big loopholes—namely, that those who are not formally baptized into the Church can be saved either through “baptism of blood” (i.e., martyrdom prior to having been formally baptized) or “baptism of desire.”

    This latter concept covers a lot of ground, but essentially means that if you’re a good person who desires and tries to live in accordance with Christ’s fundamental commandment of loving your neighbor, whether or not you accept Christ as your savior, then you can be saved even though you haven’t received the formal Catholic ritual of baptism. The (somewhat presumptuous) premise here is that if you knew that becoming a Catholic were the right thing to do, then you would do it. This doctrine allows, among other things, for the salvation of pagans who lived good “Christian” lives before the coming of Christ and therefore didn’t deserve eternal damnation. And, of course, for those damned (but not necessarily DAMNED) atheists.

    Fr. Feeney rejected both “baptism of blood” and “baptism of desire” and preached that formal baptism into the Catholic Church was the only road to salvation, and he got slammed for it. That he was a Jesuit is highly unusual, since Jesuits are generally among the most liberal of the Catholic Orders. Pope Frances, of course, is a Jesuit and I happen to be a former Jesuit, though I got so liberal that I ended up ditching the whole “salvation” bit altogether. But the above is accurate and, I hope, sheds some light on the issue in question.

    1. I said that Jesuits were “among the most liberal of the Catholic Orders.” I should have said “far and away the most liberal.” Witness the anti-Vietnam-War activists, the Berrigan brothers, S.J.

      1. Those days were formative in my opinion of Catholicism and I’ve missed them ever since! Didn’t y’all vote Democratic (for the most part) back then, too? 🙂


    2. If you were baptised through a VR app would that count as “baptism of desire”? Yes, I realise that is a silly question but once you step down along that ‘other forms of baptism count too’ road who know where your best intentions will lead?

  15. Frank the liar & straw man artist:
    “How many times have we all heard people say ‘if that person is a Catholic, it is better to be an atheist’”

    I think the answer to Frank’s rhetorical question is “never” – I don’t think Frank nor any of his crew have ever heard anyone say that

  16. Oops! And I just noticed that I inadvertently turned Pope “Frances” into a woman. How’s that for liberal?! Now I’ll stop commenting on my own comment.

  17. It reminds me of this dialogue between an Inuk and a missionary:

    Inuk: “Had you not told me about the necessity of believing to go to heaven could I have gone there nevertheless?”

    Missionary: “Yes as a perfectly just God cannot punish one who does not know through no fault of his own.”

    Inuk: “Then why did you tell me about all this?”

  18. I dunno, I think Frankie the First is sayin’ it’s better to be an honest atheist than a lapsed, dishonest Catholic — and that, whatever you are, it matters to lead a moral, ethical life.

    I half suspect he’s a nonbeliever himself.

    1. I think that’s one of those distinctions that make no difference. He’s using atheists as the measure of how low a hypocrite Catholic is. Hypocrites are even worse than people like me. I don’t need friends like that.

        1. Agree with you there Diane (and Ken). I don’t think the Pope had atheists in his sights at all. He was knocking bad Catholics, he could equally have said ‘if that person is a Catholic, it is better to be [anything else]’.

          In other words I don’t think he was knocking atheists as such, but using them as a placeholder for ‘anyody who isn’t Catholic’


          1. It occurs to me that, with the West going the way it is these days, it would be even more depressing if the Pope were a hard-line Catholic conservative…As it is, he’s almost a ray of light given all the other shit going on…

            Not that I’m suddenly soft on Catholicism, mind you! It’s just that it’s a fact of life, so the more liberal it seems to lean, the better.

  19. “There are many Catholics who are like this and they cause scandal,” he said. “How many times have we all heard people say ‘if that person is a Catholic, it is better to be an atheist’.”

    This reads like an unfinished explanation to something. Has the Reuter’s reporter cherry-picked?

  20. Catholics have long believed that people of good will are touched by grace without knowing it. The euphemisms for this are a tad condescending “baptism by implicit desire” (19th century) and “anonymous Christian” (20th century), but grace is something distinct from faith.

    Unlike evangelical Protestants, Catholics are inclined to interpret the following as a sign of non-believers gaining heaven. Romans 2:14-16
    “14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

  21. To me, what Pop says is: Mercy is associated with Catholic faith. If you don’t have the mercy and driven by money, then you don’t have the faith. So, don’t pretend you have the Catholic faith and living a double life. So, be who you are, atheists.

    Indeed, what Pop says is an insult to atheists.

  22. This pope might well be an unbeliever, as Ken said above. But, by the time he stopped believing, he was too steeped in the cult to leave it. And then, he was made pope! So, no leaving all that glory and pizzaz.

    Kind of like me taking a job teaching in the catholic school system, because when I finished university and teacher education, that was where the jobs were in my area. And I was catholic on paper. Plus was newly divorced with 2 little kids. I needed that job badly, and could “pretend” very well, having been indoctrinated all my life. Playing the role came very easily, even though I was an atheist through-and-through. I have scars on my tongue though. Boy, sometimes it was hard to stay in the closet.

    1. “…scars on my tongue…” 😀

      My daughter (an atheist) attended a Catholic HS. She was open about her atheism and for the most part no one seemed to mind much–just another tuition-paying bod at a time when enrollment was dropping…But one of the unexpectedly sad impressions that sticks with me is that of the number of teachers forced into extreme cognitive dissonance just because they needed the jobs (and were, like yourself, nominally Catholic). In particular I remember a devoted lesbian couple (one taught biology) who had to pretend they were just room mates…

      1. A friend of mine sent his kids to Catholic school and the teachers were pretty atheist friendly (I suspect they were atheists) and another couple of friends, who are religious Catholics, were asked to remove their atheist kids from the Catholic school. I loved that these religious friends both ended up with atheist offspring.

        1. Ah, nice! 🙂

          My daughter & I both agreed that there would seem to be nothing more likely to drive kids kicking and screaming away from religion than Catholic schools, and in particular their religion courses. But of course, sadly, that didn’t hold true for the kids (the majority of the enrollment) who’d been brainwashed since birth with the dogma…(not to mention mortal threats…)

          1. The nice thing is my religious friends couldn’t possibly look down on atheist me since their kids are atheists too! 🙂

      2. My son’s experience was similar. He was a non-believer from an atheist family. He did just fine at a rather liberal Catholic high school and never felt (as far as I know) closeted. It was during those years that he came to realize that Boy Scouts was bigoted against gays and atheists, so he quit just shy of doing his eagle project. I knew I had succeeded as a parent on that day.

        1. 👍 My parents wouldn’t let me join Girl Scouts because at the time it was really religious. I was okay with it anyway as the thought of wearing a dress & a dress that was a uniform annoyed me. 🙂

          1. Really? Girls Scouts (the organization) now takes pride in being inclusive of all including atheists; they were especially happy to emphasize the contrast between their all-inclusive principles and the homophobia of the Boy Scouts when the latter was blowing up in the news. (The founder of one of the earliest atheist list-servs and also of the Great Lakes Humanist Association, an e-friend of mine for years via the GLHA mail-list, was the one who, with his son, took the BSA all the way to the Supreme Court to try to get them to change their prohibition on atheists; friend & son lost…

  23. “I half suspect [this pope is] a nonbeliever himself.”

    Really?? You might want to read a bit more about that specific pope. This pope has been systematically increasing the number of “credentialed exorcists” in the church, and he has stated multiple times that demons actually exist.




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