"So many Christians are like this, and these people scandalize others," Francis said during morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta, CNN reported, quoting Vatican Radio. "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."
"But what is scandal? Scandal is saying one thing and doing another."
The Vatican later issued a note clarifying that the pontiff was simply saying that God's grace is free to all, even atheists, CNN reported.
Francis' sermon was an extension of Thursday’s Mass readings, which include a passage from the Gospel of Mark. In it, Jesus says it is better to be drowned than to cause others to sin.
Drawing on that passage, Francis gave a blunt example.
He said 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 may reply, according to Francis:
"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."
It is not the first time Francis has referenced atheists. In 2013, he said 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,” he said. "'Father, the atheists?' Even the atheists. Everyone!"