Pope Francis has struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone towards atheists and agnostics, saying that God will "forgive" them as long as they behave morally and live according to their consciences.

The unprecedented gesture came as his incoming number two, the Vatican's newly nominated secretary of state, said the rule that priests should be celibate was not "a dogma of the church". Archbishop Pietro Parolin said that the principle was "ecclesiastical tradition" and therefore open to discussion.

Francis wrote a lengthy letter to La Repubblica which the Italian daily printed over four pages. "God forgives those who obey their conscience," he wrote.

He was responding to editorials written in July and August by Eugenio Scalfari, an agnostic and the paper's founder, in which he was asked whether "the Christian God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith".


The Pope wrote: "The question for those who do not believe in God is to follow their own conscience. Sin, even for a non-believer, is when one goes against one's conscience. To listen and to follow your conscience means that you understand the difference between good and evil." The "mercy of God has no limits" and encompassed non-believers.

But the Italian Union of Atheists and Agnostics asked: "Why should a non-believer seek legitimisation from the Pope?"