Even as Pope Francis is honored as TIME Magazine's Person of the Year on Wednesday, we should remember how conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News editor Adam Shaw have denounced the perceived liberal love for the new pontiff. While the individual leftists who have praised specific papal policies can speak for themselves, I figured it was time for a much broader statement on why liberal infidels (like me), who do not believe in a religion should deeply admire the Catholic leader.
1. He preaches spiritual pluralism.
When Pope Francis made waves earlier this year by saying that atheists as well as believers were capable of being redeemed, conservative Catholics were quick to point out that redemption is not the same thing as salvation. Although it is a valid distinction from a theological standpoint, it ignores the larger scope of the pope's message. Regardless of whether he personally believes that one's specific religious opinions are tied to one's salvation, he has repeatedly encouraged the religious community (including not only his fellow Catholics but members of all faiths) to honor atheists who do good works in this world with the same respect given to those whose virtue comes from a belief in a higher power.
Similarly, although he largely supports church doctrine on divisive social questions like abortion, birth control, and gay marriage, he has incurred criticism in conservative quarters for refusing to focus on these issues, advocating a "church for all" instead of the smaller and purer church preferred by Pope Benedict XVI and many of his predecessors. His reasoning, though obviously directly intended for other Catholics, carries weight for all human souls: "We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us."
2. He wants to help the needy.
It shouldn't come as much of a shock that a Christian leader would want to devote his time to alleviating the suffering of the poor. After all, Jesus Christ is quoted many times speaking in support of the poor:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh."
Other passages of the Bible condemn the rich who luxuriate while the poor suffer:
"Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and with you have withheld, cries out against you; and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter."
Others urge the powerful to focus on the needs of the indigent:
"The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such concern."
And that doesn't even touch on the passages advocating wealth redistribution.
Needless to say, liberals of all stripes enthusiastically welcome Pope Francis' return to these values. Even when completely stripped of their ecclesiastical context, Francis' critiques of laissez-faire capitalism are sharp and morally bold. In May he said that "unbridled capitalism has taught the logic of profit at any cost, of giving in order to receive, of exploitation without looking at the person." And last month he slammed proponents of trickle-down economics, saying they show "a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system" while "the excluded are still waiting."
Of course, as I mentioned before, there is a third reason why liberal infidels admire Pope Francis ...
3. He is a virtuous man through his deeds here and now, not his words intended for a possible hereafter.
It is true that the term "infidel" (as used here) refers to religious and irreligious convictions ranging from non-Catholic Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to paganism, Buddhism, and secularists of all stripes. At the same time, one thing all liberal infidels share is the core principle that has appeared so often in this essay — namely, that virtue is defined not by what one says or privately thinks, but by the tangible good one does in this world.
While doubting the existence of an afterlife may facilitate this conviction for atheists and agnostics, it is inaccurate to claim that it is their sole or even primary motivation, especially when so many major creeds (including branches of Catholicism like the Jesuit school in which Pope Francis studied) embrace similar values. No, liberal infidels honor Pope Francis as a virtuous man for the exact same reasons as liberal Catholics: Appreciating the complexity of cosmological questions, and thus the many different paths individuals may take in pondering them, we feel that anyone who provides real-world help for "those who have too little" deserves our esteem.
Compassionate works, whether driven by religious doctrine, philosophical ideals, or pettier emotions like ambition and vanity, are inherently good ... perhaps the only kind of "good" that a reasonable man or woman can be absolutely certain exists at all. As one of the greatest liberal infidel philosophers of all time wrote when confronted regarding the motives of another virtuous man, "My God! Give us often rogues like him!"