An Atheist’s Take on Pope Francis

Pope Francis embraces a boy at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
Pope Francis embraces a boy at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

Mark Mason is a gay activist and an outspoken atheist. He’s an unlikely Catholic cheerleader. So why is he such a fan that he’s set a Google Alert so he can read every piece of news coverage on Pope Francis?

Busted Halo: How did you arrive at your place of atheism?
Mark Mason: I was not always an atheist, but sometime after college I pursued my course of increased rationalism, which, to me, led me to the lack of evidence around believing in any god. One thing I think it’s really important to say is that atheism is not a club. The only thing we have in common is a lack of belief.
BH: Pope aside, what is your overall perception of the Catholic Church today?
MM: I think the Catholic Church in this day and age is unfairly buried in the crisis that happened of a sexual nature. And to me that’s unfortunate because sexual addiction happens regardless of religion or race or socioeconomics. But our pop culture’s attempts at comedy have framed the church as almost paralyzed by scandal.

I’m aware that the church tries to do charitable things for the unfortunate. On the one hand they’re focused on social justice and improving the lives of impoverished people across the planet, while running into doctrinal issues that prevent them from doing the most sensible things sometimes, like birth control for people in Africa.

“Having a father of the church, vicar of Christ on earth, saying that not only non-Catholics but non-believers can have redemption — that’s exceedingly welcoming… There are going to be atheists going back home soon for holidays and family gatherings. Now they’re going to be armored with the words of the pope. That’s a wonderful way to reunite families that had been broken up over the issues of faith and non-faith.”
BH: What do you like so much about Pope Francis?
MM: The thing I like the most is his smile. I find it infectious. He feels like my favorite uncle. He doesn’t put the barriers and pretense of the office in front of his relationships with people.

I’m not alone here. The polls just came out, between Catholics and non-Catholics, this guy has approval ratings better than basically any other world leader. I have found him so compelling and interesting from the day he hugged that young boy in Brazil who wanted to be a priest. Ever since that moment I was mesmerized by Pope Francis — to the point where I set a Google News Alert on him. Every time there’s a piece of news about him it comes into my inbox. Fortunately it comes as a digest.

BH: As a gay man, what words of Pope Francis’ have struck you most?
MM: Ultimately, I am an activist and revolutionary, not an incrementalist. That said, I don’t think he’s acted incrementally. He is laying down a foundation that is so important. The death toll of LBGTQ children who commit suicide is so high… anything that can come and offer people comfort, I have to support.

He took the position of, what business is it of mine? He framed it in the religious language of, who am I to judge? It creates a gap between their personal life and their journey and their spiritual relationship. That is so important, in stark contrast to love the sinner, hate the sin.

This is clearly a resounding new tone. If it were dangerous, the pope would be obligated morally to be against it. Being gay is not dangerous.

BH: The pope made a notable statement about atheists: “God’s mercy does not have limits and therefore it reaches nonbelievers, too, for whom sin would not be the lack of faith in God, but rather, failure to obey one’s conscience.” How would you respond?
MM: Let me start with what caused me a shiver of displeasure. That was the language that we could still be forgiven. I understand in my limited way the idea of original sin. But as an atheist it’s a little jarring — a little more like the love the sinner, hate the sin language. But having a father of the church, vicar of Christ on earth, saying that not only non-Catholics but non-believers can have redemption — that’s exceedingly welcoming in a way that makes me willing to forgive.

There are going to be atheists going back home soon for holidays and family gatherings. Now they’re going to be armored with the words of the pope. That’s a wonderful way to reunite families that had been broken up over the issues of faith and non-faith.

“The fact that the pope is a fantastic man doesn’t change [my atheism]. What it certainly does is make it harder for me to be an ornery atheist versus a more accepting atheist.”
BH: Has Pope Francis changed the way you see the Catholic Church? 
MM: He’s helping usher in a more relevant time and an emphasis on social justice — something the church is uniquely positioned to help with.
BH: Are Catholics too reliant on an earthly leader?
MM: You’re not too dependent. This is one of the strengths of the Catholic Church and the LDS [Church of Latter-Day Saints]. When the [Mormon] prophet changes, things change. [Former church president Gordon] Hinckley was the first one to say we should love our gay and lesbian Mormon children.

There’s a “bully pulpit,” if you will, that allows parishioners to ask local parish priests, “How are we reflecting what the pope is sharing with us?”

Companies have CEOs, right? Of course, by having a formal leader, one needs to be really judicious about how they’re selected.

BH: Does he in any way affect your position on God and faith?
MM: No, and that’s because of the nature of my lack of belief. The fact that the pope is a fantastic man doesn’t change that.

What it certainly does is make it harder for me to be an ornery atheist versus a more accepting atheist. I speak on a lot of panels and such. With a pope as good as Francis, it’s hard to throw a punch out. He’s that worthy of respect.

Lynn Freehill-Maye

Lynn Freehill-Maye

A freelance travel and lifestyle writer, Lynn likes to explore her faith through journeys — both far away and close to home. She's lived and worked in the Midwest, Southwest, Northeast, Europe, Africa, Central and South America, and now upstate New York.


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