Pope Francis has been in the spotlight this week after replying to an agnostic's questions, addressing whether God could forgive a non-believer.
The response was sparked by a question from a prominent Italian agnostic, and has led some media outlets to report that the pope was suggesting non-believers could be forgiven – even to the extent of salvation – without coming to faith.
The letter, written as a response to editorials from July and August by Eugenio Scalfari, an agnostic and the founder of the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, addressed a question he posed about God forgiving people who do not believe in him or seek any type of faith.
"So I come to the three questions you put to me in the article of August 7. It seems to me that, in the first two, what is in your heart is to understand the attitude of the Church to those who don't share faith in Jesus. First of all, you ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn't believe and doesn't seek the faith," wrote the Pontiff in response to Scalfari's inquiries in the editorial.
"Premise that – and it's the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn't believe in God lies in obeying one's conscience. Sin, also for those who don't have faith, exists when one goes against one's conscience. To listen to and to obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action," he added.
Scalfari admits that he did not expect the South American Pope to respond "so extensively and so affectionately, with such fraternal spirit."
Despite many of the initial interpretations of his statement that pointed to the pope being soft on traditional dogma such as salvation only through faith in Jesus, Catholics such as Vatican correspondent Robert Mickens have clarified Francis was simply trying to create common ground between the Church and skeptics such as Scalfari.
The pope's supporters have explained that in his response he was not seeking to provide a universal theological response on the issue of forgiveness and salvation, but rather Pope Francis was speaking directly to the individual's heart to open up meaningful dialogue with Scalfari.
"Francis is still a conservative. But what this is all about is him seeking to have a more meaningful dialogue with the world," said Mickens to the London-based Catholic journal The Tablet.