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Mike Hayes and guest authors give insight into the surprises of Pope Francis’ papacy, shedding light on how and why this pope is doing things a bit differently.

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November 5th, 2013

An Atheist’s Take on Pope Francis

 
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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.

 
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The Author : Lynn Freehill-Maye
An Irish Catholic by birth, Lynn Freehill-Maye is nevertheless getting a new perspective on the all things Irish Catholic by living near the University of Notre Dame. A news junkie and former reporter, she has lived and worked in Iowa, Spain, Arizona, El Salvador, the Virgin Islands, Texas, and now South Bend, Indiana.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Bob Muenchausen

    Very much like your last paragraph. Pope Francis reminds me of a story about a fellow I once knew, a Mormon Missionary to Argentina. When he returned he was changed. Oh, yes, he was still wrestling with being a lifelong Mormon. But he said the most interesting thing to me.

    Because their mission was out in the middle of nowhere down there, there was only himself, his Mormon partner, and two Catholic clergy in their little town. The people there needed a lot of help and both of their churches had an objective to give those people help. Certainly with an eye to conversions, i would suppose, but after 2 yrs, they had learned to work together for the needs of the people first. My friend’s exceptional comment about that experience came later when he confided that he considered himself a Christian first, and a Mormon second. Perhaps that is how this Pope sees himself?

  • Christopher Robert

    Funny how it took a new Pope to share what the Catholic Church has been all about for ages. Don’t believe everything you read about the church.

  • Domush

    “my favorite thing is his smile”

    You’ve got to be kidding me. Yeah, if i was the head of a country with billions in assets whose only export was delusion, yet had millions of people sending me money anyhow I’d be smiling ear to ear as well.

    “the media is to blame for focusing on the sex scandal ”

    Yeah, because it was the media, not the current pope which made it illegal to report sexual abuse by clergy. Wake up. The scandal is reported as such because the church makes every wrong decision possible regarding abuse in the church.

    The day a pope begins dismantling the

    • Daniel White

      What’s bothering you? Sheesh, calm down. I’m sorry that you view Faith in God as lies. You need to be more open minded. I suggest that you do some more research about the Catholic Church before you start making so many accusations and assumptions about it.
      God Loves you whether you accept it or not. Stop putting so much energy into fighting, you’ll just tire yourself out for no reason.
      Peace in Christ.

    • anti-discriminator

      Domush, take a quick read of Pope John Paul II’s will. He had NO material possessions. Pope Francis will be the same, and evidently lives a life of poverty. It seems you’re making gross misstatements based on mere conjecture.

  • https://www.facebook.com/nursecarl Carl Sobrado

    A few of my closest friends are gay and atheist. I’ve also noticed that they too are inspired by Pope Francis. Pope Francis is an amazing person.

    The pictures of him at the Holy Thursday Mass this past Holy Week, washing the feet of the teens, made me drop some tears~

    • http://www.mommymisadventures.com/ Michelle Mista

      It’s really a testament to who Pope Francis is that he’s been able to positively influence rather than further divide, as was the case with Pope Benedict. Among my large group of very progressive friends, I am one of the few practicing theists of any kind, much less a Catholic one. While there’s been some whinging about how he’s “not enough” to make up for the wrongs the Church may be party to, he still gets a positive nod from most of my friends which is HUGE to me.

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