Pope Francis told his followers Thursday that it was better to be an atheist than one of "many" Catholics who he said led hypocritical double lives.
"So many Catholics are like this," he said during morning Mass at his residence at the Vatican. "There are those who say, 'I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this and that association,' " the head of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church said, according to a Vatican Radio transcript.
But, he suggested, those people should also say, " 'My life is not Christian, I don't pay my employees proper salaries, I exploit people, I do dirty business, I launder money, [I lead] a double life.' "
He then quoted a sentiment he said he had heard often: "But to be a Catholic like that, it's better to be an atheist."
Francis has surprised the church before with his stance toward atheists. Less than two months after his election in 2013, he said Christians should see atheists as good people if they do good.
He has also taken other unorthodox positions. He condemned sexual abuse of children by priests as being tantamount to a "Satanic Mass" and said Catholics in the Mafia excommunicate themselves. He also told his own cardinals to not act as if they were "princes."