As a result of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, including Washington, D.C., Georgetown’s Catholic community is abuzz with excitement and praise for the pontiff. It doesn’t take much more than a glance at one’s Facebook feed to know that people are excited to see a pope who is changing the focus of the church to issues such as poverty, climate change and humanitarian crises, which many argue should have been the primary focuses of the church all along. This new pope helps attract a younger generation that is less inculcated in Catholic thought and more focused on social progressivism than previous generations. For this, we applaud Pope Francis.
However, for those who are newly interested in the Catholic Church because of the message of this progressive pontiff, we’d like to highlight one key point: the Catholic Church does not own being good, nor does any faith. Being a good person is a universal principle that lies outside of religious doctrine.
While it is laudable that the pope, with the megaphone that he has, would call upon the nations of Europe to welcome refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East into their countries, homes and parishes, many leaders in Europe have also called for countries to accept refugees. Notably, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande have led their nations to accept more refugees on explicitly moral grounds. Hospitality is an ancient custom that predates the Catholic Church, and the people and countries taking in refugees are not necessarily doing so because God or the church told them.
Likewise, on the issue of climate change, environmental activists have been trying to frame global climate change as a moral issue for years, and the pope’s words of action are helpful and appreciated. That said, to assume that the only reason that one should care for the environment is in order to be a better Catholic is to ignore the work of those most dedicated to this cause.
Imagine that a leading atheist such as Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher called for the exact same things that the pope has and was able to reach the same amount of people. It does not take a particularly bright mind to realize that he would be given much less credence, almost exclusively because of his religious preference. And yet the substance of his proposal would remain the same. In its own way, this is a kind of discrimination. Atheists the world over, including here in the United States, are distrusted and believed to be immoral because most people believe that morality is inextricably linked with religious thought.
This ostensible religious monopoly on morality has real world consequences. According to the Pew Foundation, only 41 percent of Americans view atheists positively. Only 45 percent would even consider voting for a qualified atheist for public office. Fewer people would be comfortable with their son or daughter marrying an atheist than a person with any other faith, knowing nothing else about the person.
People seem to believe that atheists are nihilists or that they have rejected the moral foundations of our society. This is simply not the case. Of the 16 percent of Americans who do not profess any religious belief, at least 5 percent are self-identified atheists, which equals about 15.8 million people. These are law-abiding Americans who find their moral centers in philosophy, societal norms and common human decency. But because religious groups are credited with exclusive moral authority, most Americans would deny them basic rights.
We, as Georgetown students, respect Pope Francis because he advocates on behalf of our fellow man for the least among us and the most in need. These are common moral principles that people of all faiths or none can embrace. We ask that nonreligious people be given the same right to a judgment of character as religious people — not immediately labeled as amoral nihilists. Every person is much more complicated than his religious affiliation and condemning him based on a single belief misses who he really is. As Pope Francis himself said, “Who am I to judge?”
Joseph Laposata is a senior in the College. Garrett Hinck is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.
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