05/29/2013 06:44 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

A Pope Who Welcomes Atheists to Heaven Makes Himself More Welcome on Earth

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In 1870 the last pontiff born in the 1700s faced the challenge of Italy's unification and armies massing against the papal state. In response to the loss of his lands, Pius IX embraced the supernatural notion of papal infallibility, which holds certain statements made from St. Peter's chair to be unassailably true for all of time.

The doctrine of infallibility and others held with real ferocity, further distanced ordained men from laypeople and remade the pope's domain into an mainly moral empire that was respected around the world until the 1980s. Since then, the hierarchy's authority has been devastated by an international child sexual abuse crisis that has seen hundreds of priests imprisoned, and thousands more subject to accusations deemed "credible" by the bishops themselves. Billions of dollars have been paid to victims as a system of cover-up and denial has been exposed in the Church's own documents. Public trust in priests and bishops who claimed spiritual superiority plummeted.

Faced with the worst crisis since the Reformation, the popular Pope John Paul II and the not-so-popular Benedict XVI failed to act decisively. In Rome, and in chanceries around the world, foot dragging and aggressive lawyering actually made the crisis worse. As recently as January of this year, the release of documents held by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which fought to keep them secret, revived public outrage over priests who abused children and were protected by higher-ups. A prompt and commonsense response to abuse cases would have settled the scandal and put the church authorities and victims on the road to reconciliation long ago. Instead attempts suppress the facts and avoid a big release of shaming evidence, kept the stream of revelation flowing for decades.

Early this year Benedict surprised the world when he resigned his office, becoming the first pope to do so in roughly 500 years. His explanation -- weariness and concern over his ability to lead -- echoed with the pain of the sexual abuse crisis. As the man who handled all cases for Pope John Paul, Benedict knew more and perhaps suffered more over these crimes than anyone in the Vatican. As pope he made attempts at penance and to seek forgiveness, but his outreach to victims always seemed strained.

The new pope arrived in March with a kind of humility not seen in anyone's memory. Francis I refused to stand above his brother bishops when he was named winner of the papal election. He eschewed the fancy red leather shoes and ermine stole favored by his predecessor. And he shocked traditionalists when he included women and Muslims in the foot-washing ritual popes have long conducted at the Mass of the Last Supper during Holy Week. Now comes word that he believes that heaven's gate swings open for all good people, even atheists.

Responding to a hypothetical question, the pope said he believes that the spiritual redemption offered to the world by Jesus Christ is available to all, including non-Catholics he responded affirmatively. Pressed on the matter of non-believers he added, "Even them, everyone." Francis added, "Just do good and we'll find a meeting point."

With these remarks, reported on Vatican radio, the new pope added spiritual generosity to the gracious and sincere style he had brought to his office. For some observers, who regarded his record of loyal service to previous papal hardliners, this softer approach may be baffling. After all, no one could have become a bishop and, ultimately, cardinal of the church in Buenos Aires without a strong record of obedience.

However, the path to the papacy really does end at the office door. Once elevated, a pope has more power as an executive that any president or prime minister. He can set policies, adjust teachings, and even, in this most recent comment, invite atheists into the kingdom of heaven.

For those of us outside the institutional Church, who nevertheless hope for it to grow out of the era of scandal and focus on its great good works, Francis is fast becoming a beacon of hope. Much of what he has said and done suggests he here's the call for a more democratic power structure and is ready to change the culture of clerics. He is already bringing them all down from the position of superiority, which they many claim upon ordination. Francis inspires our admiration, not because we expect to join him in the hereafter but because he is joining us, as a fellow human being, on the face of the Earth.