Pope suggests it’s better to be an atheist than a greedy Christian

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VATICAN CITY — Christians who exploit people, lead a double life and get involved in “dirty business” scandalize the church, Pope Francis said in a sermon Thursday. In fact, it might be better just to be an atheist.

“And so many Christians are like this, and these people scandalize others. How many times have we heard — all of us, around the neighborhood and elsewhere — ‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’ It is that, scandal. You destroy. You beat down,” Francis said, according to Vatican Radio.

Examples of such scandals abound, the pope said, adding they destroy the church — and the guilty Christian — from within.

Francis’ sermon, as is customary, was an extended riff on Thursday’s Mass readings, which include a passage from the Gospel on Mark in which Jesus says it is better to be drowned than to cause others to sin.

And while many of this Pope’s pronouncements are often assumed to be novel interpretations of Christian doctrines, Francis was touching on an ancient debate: Is salvation open to all believers, or only those who do good while on Earth?

The pope suggested the latter, in characteristically blunt language.

He imagined a wealthy Christian knocking at the gates of heaven and saying, “Here I am, Lord! … I went to Church, I was close to you, I belong to this association, I did this… Don’t you remember all the offerings I made?”

To which Jesus might reply, according to the pope: “Yes, I remember. The offerings, I remember them: All dirty. All stolen from the poor. I don’t know you.’ That will be Jesus’ response to these scandalous people who live a double life.”

Thursday’s sermon is far from the first time Francis has targeted Christian hypocrites. In a sermon last year, the outspoken pope called out the “fakeness” of some Christians, who talk piously, but do little to help others.

“To be a Christian means to do: To do the will of God — and on the last day — because all of us we will have one — that day what shall the Lord ask us? Will He say: ‘What you have said about me?’ No. He shall ask us about the things we did.”

It isn’t the first time the pope has mentioned atheists, either. In 2013, he raised questions for saying that heaven is open, potentially, to all people.

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone,” the pope told worshipers. “‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!

“We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

The Vatican later issued a note clarifying the Pope was simply saying God’s grace is free to all, even atheists, and urging Christians and nonbelievers to work together when they can.