In an interview the Holy Father talks about abortion, abuse and the Vatican’s relations with China

Harmony between the differences

 Harmony between the differences  ING-048
02 December 2022

In Ukraine the Holy See is always willing to mediate

On 22 November, five representatives of America Media interviewed Pope Francis in his residence at Santa Marta at the Vatican. Matt Malone, S.J., the departing editor in chief of America, was joined by Sam Sawyer, S.J., the incoming editor in chief; executive editor Kerry Weber; Gerard O’Connell, America’s Vatican correspondent; and Gloria Purvis, host of “The Gloria Purvis Podcast”. They discussed a wide range of topics with the Pope, including polarization in the U.S., Church, racism, the war in Ukraine, the Vatican’s relations with China and Church teaching on the ordination of women. The interview was conducted in Spanish with the assistance of a translator. The following are lengthy excerpts of the interview which was given in Spanish.

(...) Since your speech to the U.S. Congress, we have seen not only political polarization grow deeper, also polarization within the life of the Church. How can the Church respond to polarization within its own life and help respond to polarization in society?

Polarization is not Catholic. A Catholic cannot think either-or (aut-aut) (...). The essence of what is Catholic is both-and (et-et) (...). There is only one people of God. When there is polarization, a divisive mentality arises, which privileges some and leaves others behind. The Catholic always harmonizes differences.

The majority of Catholics seem to have lost faith in the bishops’ conference’s ability to offer moral guidance. How can the U.S. Catholic bishops regain the trust of American Catholics?

(...) I think it is misleading to speak of the relationship between Catholics and the bishops’ conference. The bishops’ conference is not the pastor; the pastor is the bishop. So one runs the risk of diminishing the authority of the bishop when you look only to the bishops’ conference. The bishops’ conference is there to bring together the bishops, to work together, to discuss issues, to make pastoral plans. But each bishop is a pastor.

Let us not dissolve the power of the bishop by reducing it to the power of the bishops’ conference. Because at that level, these tendencies compete, more on the right, more on the left, more here, more there, and anyway [the bishop’s conference] does not have the flesh and blood responsibility like that of a bishop with his people, a pastor with his people.

Jesus did not create bishops’ conferences. Jesus created bishops, and each bishop is pastor of his people (...). Therefore, the question is: What is the relation of the bishop with his people? Permit me to mention a bishop about whom I do not know if he is conservative, or if he is progressive, if he is of the right or of the left, but he is a good pastor: [Mark] Seitz, [Bishop of El Paso,] on the border with Mexico. He is a man who grasps all the contradictions of that place and carries them forward as a pastor (...). You have some good bishops who are more on the right, some good bishops who are more on the left, but they are more bishops than ideologues; they are more pastors than ideologues. That is the key.

The answer to your question is: The bishops’ conference is an organization meant to assist and unite, a symbol of unity. But the grace of Jesus Christ is in the relationship between the bishop and his people, his diocese.

Abortion is a heavily politicized issue in the United States. Should the bishops prioritize abortion in relation to other social justice issues?

(...) In any book of embryology it is said that shortly before one month after conception the organs and the DNA are already delineated in the tiny fetus, before the mother even becomes aware. Therefore, there is a living human being. I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being. And I raise two questions: Is it right to get rid of a human being to resolve a problem? Second question: Is it right to hire a “hit man” to resolve a problem? The problem arises when this reality of killing a human being is transformed into a political question, or when a pastor of the Church uses political categories.

Each time a problem loses the pastoral dimension (pastoralidad), that problem becomes a political problem (...). When I see a problem like this one, which is a crime, become strongly, intensely political, there is a failure of pastoral care (...). Whether in this question of abortion, or in other problems, one cannot lose sight of the pastoral dimension: A bishop is a pastor, a diocese is the holy people of God with their pastor. We cannot deal with [abortion] as if it is only a civil matter.

The question was if the bishops’ conference should present the fight against abortion as the number one problem, while all the rest are secondary.

My response is that this is a problem the bishops’ conference has to resolve within itself. What interests me is the relationship of the bishop with the people, which is sacramental. The other [issue] is organizational, and bishops’ conferences at times get it wrong (equivocan). It is enough to look at the Second World War and at certain choices that some bishops’ conferences made, which were wrong from a political or social viewpoint. Sometimes a majority wins, but maybe the majority is not right (...).

The conference helps to organize meetings, and these are very important; but for a bishop, [being] pastor is most important. What is most important, I would say essential, is the sacramental (...). Each bishop must seek fraternity with the other bishops (...). But what is essential is the relationship with his people.

The sexual abuse crisis has greatly damaged both the Church’s credibility and its effort at evangelization. Recent revelations of abuse committed by bishops have increased concerns about the Church’s transparency. What more can the Vatican do to improve in this aspect of transparency?

(...) Until the Boston crisis, when everything was uncovered, the Church acted by moving an abuser from his place; covering up, (...). The problem of sexual abuse is extremely serious in society (...). The abuse of minors is one of the most monstrous things. The practice, which is still maintained in some families and institutions today, was to cover it up. The Church made the decision to not cover up [anymore]. From there progress was made in judicial processes, the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Here, a great [example] is Cardinal [Seán] O’Malley of Boston, who had the mindset to institutionalize [the protection of minors] within the Church. When honest people see how the Church is taking responsibility for this monstrosity, they understand that the Church is one thing while the abusers who are being punished by the Church are another. The leader in taking these decisions was Benedict xvi (...). One of the things that most worries me is child pornography. These are filmed live. In which country are these films made? What are the authorities of these countries doing that allow this to happen? It is criminal. Criminal!

The Church takes responsibility for its own sin, and we go forward, sinners, trusting in the mercy of God. When I travel, I generally receive a delegation of victims of abuse. An anecdote about this: When I was in Ireland, people who had been abused asked for an audience. There were six or seven of them. At the beginning, they were a little angry, and they were right. I said to them: “Look, let us do something. Tomorrow, I have to give a homily; why don’t we prepare it together, about this problem?” And that gave rise to a beautiful phenomenon because what had started as a protest was transformed into something positive and, together, we all created the homily for the next day. That was a positive thing [that happened] in Ireland, one of the most heated situations I have had to face.

The U.S. Church has made a great advance in dealing with abuse when it happens with priests. However, it seems there is less transparency when a bishop is accused.

Yes, and here I believe we have to go forward with equal transparency. If there is less transparency, it is a mistake.

About Ukraine: Many in the United States have been confused by your seeming unwillingness to directly criticize Russia. How would you explain your position on this war to Ukrainians, or Americans and others who support Ukraine?

When I speak about Ukraine, I speak of a people who are martyred. If you have a martyred people, you have someone who martyrs them. When I speak about Ukraine, I speak about the cruelty because I have much information about the cruelty of the troops that come in. Generally, the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on. Certainly, the one who invades is the Russian state. This is very clear. Sometimes I try not to specify so as not to offend and rather condemn in general, although it is well known whom I am condemning. It is not necessary that I put a name and surname.

On the second day of the war, I went to the Russian embassy [to the Holy See], an unusual gesture because the pope never goes to an embassy. And there I said to the ambassador to tell [Vladimir] Putin that I was willing to travel on condition that he allowed me a tiny window to negotiate. [Sergey] Lavrov, the foreign minister at a high level, replied with a very nice letter from which I understood that for the time being it was not necessary.

I spoke to President Zelensky twice by phone. And I work in general with receiving lists of prisoners, both civilian prisoners and military prisoners, and I have these sent to the Russian government, and the response has always been very positive.

I also thought of traveling, but I made the decision: If I travel, I go to Moscow and to Kyiv, to both, not to one place only. And I never gave the impression that I was covering up the aggression. I received here in this hall, three or four times, a delegation from the Ukrainian government. And we work together.

Why do I not name Putin? Because it is not necessary; it is already known. However, sometimes people latch onto a detail. Everyone knows my stance, with Putin or without Putin, without naming him.

Some cardinals went to Ukraine: Cardinal Czerny went twice; [Archbishop] Gallagher, who is responsible for [relations with] states, spent four days in Ukraine, and I received a report of what he saw; and Cardinal Krajewski went four times. He goes with his van loaded with things and spent last Holy Week in Ukraine. I mean the presence of the Holy See with the cardinals is very strong, and I am in continual contact with people in positions of responsibility.

And I should like to mention that there is in these days the anniversary of the Holodomor, the genocide that Stalin committed against the Ukrainians (in 1932-33). I believe it is appropriate to mention it as a historical antecedent of the [present] conflict.

The position of the Holy See is to seek peace and to seek an understanding. The diplomacy of the Holy See is moving in this direction and, of course, is always willing to mediate.

A recent survey has shown that a large number of Black Catholics are leaving the Church. What would you say now to Black Catholics in the United States who experienced racism and at the same time experience a deafness within the Church for calls for racial justice?

I would say to them that I am close to the suffering they are experiencing, which is a racial suffering (...).

So how can we encourage Black Catholics to stay?

I would say to African American Catholics that the pope is aware of their suffering, that he loves them very much, and that they should resist and not walk away. Racism is an intolerable sin against God. The Church, the pastors and lay people must continue fighting to eradicate it and for a more just world.

I take this opportunity to say that I also love, very much, the Indigenous peoples of the United States. And I do not forget the Latinos, who are very many there now.

Many women feel pain because they cannot be ordained priests. What would you say to a woman who is already serving in the life of the Church, but who still feels called to be a priest?

It is a theological problem. I think that we amputate the being of the Church if we consider only the way of the ministerial dimension (ministerialidad) of the life of the Church. The way is not only [ordained] ministry.

The Church is woman. The Church is a spouse. We have not developed a theology of women that reflects this. The ministerial dimension, we can say, is that of the Petrine Church (...). But there is another principle that is still more important, about which we do not speak, that is the Marian principle, which is the principle of femininity (femineidad) in the Church, of the woman in the Church, where the Church sees a mirror of herself because she is a woman and a spouse.

A church with only the Petrine principle would be a church that one would think is reduced to its ministerial dimension, nothing else. But the Church is more than a ministry. It is the whole people of God. The Church is woman. The Church is a spouse. Therefore, the dignity of women is mirrored in this way.

There is a third way: the administrative way. The ministerial way, the ecclesial way, let us say, Marian, and the administrative way, which is not a theological thing (...). And, in this aspect, I believe we have to give more space to women. Here in the Vatican, the places where we have put women are functioning better. For example, in the Council for the Economy, where there are six cardinals and six lay persons. Two years ago, I appointed five women among the six laypersons, and that was a revolution. The deputy governor of the Vatican is a woman. When a woman enters politics or manages things, generally she does better. Many economists are women, and they are renewing the economy in a constructive way(...).

And why can a woman not enter ordained ministry? It is because the Petrine principle has no place for that. Yes, one has to be in the Marian principle, which is more important. Woman is more, she looks more like the Church, which is mother and spouse (...). I wanted to highlight the two theological principles; the Petrine principle and the Marian principle that make up the Church. Therefore, that the woman does not enter into the ministerial life is not a deprivation. No. Your place is that which is much more important and which we have yet to develop, the catechesis about women in the way of the Marian principle (...).

In the United States, there are those who interpret your criticisms of market capitalism as criticisms of the United States. There are even some who think you may be a socialist, or they call you a communist, or they call you a Marxist.

I always ask myself, where does this labeling come from? (...). I am much enlightened by the Beatitudes, but above all by the standard by which we will be judged: Matthew 25. “I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was in prison, and you visited me. I was sick and you cared for me.” Is Jesus a communist, then? The problem that is behind this, (...) is the socio-political reduction of the Gospel message. If I see the Gospel in a sociological way only, yes, I am a communist, and so too is Jesus (...).

You have been criticized over China. You signed an agreement with China on the nomination of bishops. Some people, and you yourself, have said the result is not great, but it is a result. Some people in the Church and in politics say you are paying a high price for maintaining silence on human rights [in China].

It is not a matter of speaking or silence. That is not the reality. The reality is to dialogue or not to dialogue. And one dialogues up to the point that is possible.

For me, the greatest model I find in the modern period of the Church is Cardinal Casaroli (...). The popes — I mean Paul vi and John xxiii — sent him above all to the countries of Central Europe to try to re-establish relations during the period of communism, during the Cold War. And this man dialogued with governments, slowly, and he did what he could and slowly was able to re-establish the Catholic hierarchy in those countries (...). It was not always possible to appoint the best person as archbishop in the capital, but instead the one that was possible according to the government.

Dialogue is the way of the best diplomacy. With China I have opted for the way of dialogue. It is slow, it has its failures, it has its successes, but I cannot find another way. And I want to underline this: The Chinese people are a people of great wisdom and deserve my respect and my admiration. I take off my hat to them. And for this reason I try to dialogue, because it is not that we are going to conquer people. No! There are Christians there. They have to be cared for, so that they may be good Chinese and good Christians (...).