Lifestyle & Belief

Pope Francis grants far-ranging interview, opens up about a church in crisis


Pope Francis waves after his general audience in St Peter's square at the Vatican on September 18, 2013.


Tiziana Fabi

In a remarkable, wide-ranging interview posted by America, the Jesuit magazine in New York, Pope Francis has sketched new details for a change of course in the Roman Catholic Church. The pope has made a striking departure from key positions of Benedict XVI and John Paul II.   

“I see the church as a field hospital after a battle,” the pope told Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit newspaper in Rome and official publication of the Vatican.    

The metaphor of a wounded church is a burst of candor for the Supreme Pontiff amid a sexual abuse crisis and financial scandals inside the Vatican that drove the resignation of his predecessor.   

“It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars!” said Francis. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds...And you have to start from the ground up.”    

The idea of reform-as-healing permeates the interview, which runs 15 double-spaced pages on the America Press website. Father Spadaro interviewed the pope, in Italian, during three sessions in August in Rome on behalf of a group of Jesuit publications. Five translators prepared the English version.    

In what surely ranks with the most deeply personal, confessional reflections by the pastor of a global church, Francis recalled his embattled tenure as a Jesuit superior in Argentina during the "dirty war" of the late 1970s and early 80s, a time when left-leaning priests and nuns were imprisoned, and some of them tortured and killed by a fascist regime. The Society of Jesus community was splintered under Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the pope's given name.

"I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations," he says in the interview.

"My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and be accused of being ultraconservative," the pope told Father Spadaro, "but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems."

"I say these things from life experience and because I want to make sure what the dangers are. Over time I learned many things. The Lord has allowed this growth in knowledge of [church] government through my faults and my sins."

The pope's frank admission of his mistakes as a long-ago Jesuit provincial cut a sharp contrast with the monarchical certitude that John Paul II brought to the papacy in the last decade of the Cold War, casting the church in a role of resisting the evil of Soviet Communism. He, and his successor, Benedict XVI, saw the progressive changes sparked by the 1960s' Second Vatican Council as a shift in the wrong direction. Both men pushed for greater power concentrated in the papacy and rigid adherence on the most conservative moral teachings, to the point of requiring litmus tests by potential bishops on issues like birth control and mandatory celibacy.

In sharp contrast with the hard-line stances of Benedict and John Paul, Francis is taking a more nuanced view on politics of the body -- a position that is bound to spark disputes among conservative theologians and scholars.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible,” he said. “But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”     

Moral teaching has historically been the responsibility of the Holy Office, which oversaw the Inquisition, and in the 1960s was renamed Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The CDF became a powerhouse in the Vatican under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1980s, punishing theologians considered out of step with papal teaching, a practice that continued when Ratzinger became Benedict and the office imposed an unwieldy takeover of Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the mainstream group of American nuns, for allegations of radical feminism.

LCWR is hoping for a reprieve from Francis.       

Although he did not go that far in the interview, nor mention LCWR specifically, Francis said, “We have to find a new balance; otherwise the even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”    

“We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of women,” he stated.    

The American bishops worked 10 years on a pastoral letter about women that left them so divided they scrapped the project.     

Bishops’ conferences, the pope said, and certain unnamed Vatican congregations, “run the risk of becoming institutions of censorship.”     

“The feminine genius is needed where ever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised.”

Elsewhere, he refers to “the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity.”

The pope’s remarks about gays build on his conciliatory tone in a free-wheeling interview with Vatican journalists on the flight to Rome from his visit to Brazil in July.     

“When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” he said. “We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.”      

By framing the question as one of love or rejection, Francis is shifting the theological debate from a reliance on ancient scripture that condemns homogenital relations as an attack on God, to a discussion of free will, whether gays who have no choice over their sexual orientation should be consigned by church teaching to a life of morally mandated celibacy.   

Yet in remarks clearly intended to invite fallen-away Catholics back to the church, Francis stresses the importance of confession in the sacramental life, as well as greater flexibility by priests.

“The people of God want pastors and clergy not acting like bureaucrats or government officials,” he states. "The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better.”     

He cites the case of a woman “with a failed marriage in her past who also has had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?”      

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent,” he says, embracing the reform sensibility of the Second Vatican Council. “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: that is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn.”     

The pope reveals a cultural sensibility in praising the films of Fellini, the novels of Cervantes and Jorge Luis Borges, the paintings of Chagall and Caravaggio and the music of Mozart and Bach.   

“Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones,” he said.     

The pope offers a more explicit departure from the heavy emphasis the last two popes placed on orthodoxy and obedience.  

“If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing,” Francis says in what may be the most candid comment in the long interview, an implicit admission of fault within the hierarchy for empty churches in many European cities and the steep drop in Sunday Mass attendance in Western countries.      

“Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists – they have a static and inward-directed view of things,” the pope reflects. “In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life...Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else – God is in this person’s life. You can, you must, try to seek God in every human life.”