Pope Francis's personal response to people seeking help or comfort has drawn universal acclaim. Last month he phoned a rape victim to comfort her, and this week he reassured a woman that her unborn child could be baptized out of wedlock. All of that makes his 2,500-word letter replying to a concerned atheist somewhat less startling - but still a surprise.
The letter-writer asked the Pope if God would forgive people "who do not believe and do not seek to believe," the Guardian reports. The Pope responded that non-believers should follow their consciences and they will be forgiven by God.
"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 Pope wrote, "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."
A few months ago the Vatican overrode a similar statement the Pope made regarding atheists. He had said that even atheists would go to heaven if they did good works. The Vatican responded by publishing a correction: no, atheists are still going to hell. It remains to be seen how they'll respond to the Pope's renewed tolerance of atheists.
Pope Francis has made all kind of moves that go over well with secular progressives: his speeches against the Syrian war and corporate greed, and his acceptance of gay people, of whom he said "who am I to judge?"