Like many people (including this very popular diary and discussion), I first read Francis' statement on atheism and "doing good" to be a clear, explicit, statement that Atheists who do good will be saved. That's not what he said. Sure, in his worldview atheists can be saved, but that's because God can do whatever God wants to do. Humans are bound, in Catholic thinking, to the sacraments. But God is not.
We could spend a lot of time (believe me, I spent a lot of time!) parsing the particularities of Francis' statement, linking them to Aquinas, Augustine, and documents from Vatican II (on goodness). That's fun stuff for a medieval scholar like me, but I think the focus on atheism misses what's really important here. I wrote about this for the Atlantic today, but thought I'd expand a little here with thoughts aimed directly at our DailyKOS community.
Francis is calling for pluralistic engagement across all divisions, focused on doing good, on dialogue, and on finding common ground. We live in a world seemingly divided by caste, creed, nationality, orientation, and so many more markers of division. But the pluralistic view, the progressive view, is that we can honor our identities while meeting others around shared goals, and around a shared humanity.
For a Catholic like Francis, that humanity emerges out of our status as Created beings. For me, I'm more driven by secular principles of universal human rights and secular humanism, but I find the Francis message powerful. A Catholic church pushing for pluralism will be a powerful force in the world, isolating extremists, even (especially!) Catholic extremists.
So if you are angry at the Church for its extremism, for all the wrongs the hierarchy has committed, for the positions on LGBT people, on women, for protecting pedophiles, for all these things. Know that in the Vatican there seems to be a man who wants to effect change.
Can he? Will he?
Time will tell.
EDIT: Thank you for the many thoughtful comments and for the recommends. I am out most of the day, but will wade into the comments and reply to everything later. Please check back. I look forward to dialogue.