Pope Francis responded at great length to questions from Eugenio Scalfari, the former editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in a letter published Wednesday. In it, he said that non-believers must "obey their conscience," because "God forgives those who obey their conscience."

The carefully-worded letter, which stretched over four full printed pages, stopped short of declaring that atheists and agnostics get into Heaven, but did suggest that "our actions" ("nostro agire") can be good or bad even outside of the framework of the Church.

However, he did not, as the Telegraph reported, actually say that "mercy of God has no limits" in a manner that "encompassed even non-believers." He wrote instead that "God's mercy has no limits if you got to Him with a sincere and contrite heart" ("la misericordia di Dio non ha limiti se ci si rivolge a lui con cuore sincero e contrito"). Non-believers, the Pope asserts, can live good lives if they perform good actions.

But the fact that the Pope is addressing atheist and agnostic critics with seriousness, in "a peaceful and constructive dialogue" ("dialogo sereno e costruttivo") is noteworthy in itself, as it represents a small, but significant, break from his predecessors.

He's attempting to strike a more inclusive tone, as when he reached out to LGBT people of faith after returning from Brazil, saying "[i]f someone is gay, who searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?"

["Pope Francis holds a press conference aboard the flight back to Italy from Rio de Janeiro" via AFP]