Exclusive: Pope Francis discusses Ukraine, U.S. bishops and more
Editor’s Note: On Nov. 22, 2022, five representatives of America Media interviewed Pope Francis at 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, Elisabetta Piqué. A transcript of the Spanish text can be found here.
Pope Francis: Thank you for coming!
Matt Malone, S.J.: Holy Father, America magazine was founded by the Jesuits in 1909, and we’ve been published continuously since. This is our first opportunity to speak face to face with a pope, and we’re very grateful. The first thing that is on the mind of our readers, that surprises them, is that you always seem joyful, happy, even amid crises and troubles. What is it that makes you so joyful, so peaceful and happy in your ministry?
I didn’t know that I am always like that. I am joyful when I am with people—always. One of the things I find most difficult as pope is not being able to walk on the street with the people, because here one cannot go out; it is impossible to walk on the street. But I would not say that I am happy because I am healthy, or because I eat well, or because I sleep well, or because I pray a great deal. I am happy because I feel happy, God makes me happy. I don’t have anything to blame on the Lord, not even when bad things happen to me. Nothing. Throughout my life, he has always guided me on his path, sometimes in difficult moments, but there is always the assurance that one does not walk alone. I have that assurance. He is always at my side. One has one’s faults, also one’s sins; I go to confession every 15 days—I do not know, that is just how I am.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.: Holy Father, in your speech to the U.S. Congress seven years ago, you warned against “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil, or the righteous and sinners” and you also called for “a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.” Yet since your speech to 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) and reduce everything to polarization. The essence of what is Catholic is both-and (et-et). The Catholic unites the good and the not-so-good. 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. If we see how the Holy Spirit acts; it first causes disorder: Think of the morning of Pentecost, and the confusion and mess (lío) it created there, and then it brings about harmony. The Holy Spirit in the church does not reduce everything to just one value; rather, it harmonizes opposing differences. That is the Catholic spirit. The more harmony there is between the differences and the opposites the more Catholic it is. The more polarization there is, the more one loses the Catholic spirit and falls into a sectarian spirit. This [saying] is not mine, but I repeat it: what is Catholic is not either-or, but is both-and, combining differences. And this is how we understand the Catholic way of dealing with sin, which is not puritanical: saints and sinners, both together.
Polarization is not Catholic. A Catholic cannot think either-or and reduce everything to polarization. The essence of what is Catholic is both-and.
It is interesting to search for the roots of what is Catholic in the choices that Jesus made. Jesus had four possibilities: either to be a Pharisee, or to be a Sadducee, or to be an Essene, or to be a Zealot. These were the four parties, the four options at that time. And Jesus was not a Pharisee, nor a Sadducee, nor an Essene, nor a Zealot. He was something different. And if we look at the deviations in the history of the church we can see that they are always on the side of the Pharisees, of the Sadducees, of the Essenes, or the Zealots. Jesus went beyond all this by proposing the Beatitudes, which are also something different.
The temptation in the church was always to follow in these four paths. In the United States you have a Catholicism that is particular to the United States—that is normal. But you also have some ideological Catholic groups.
Kerry Weber: Holy Father, in 2021, we conducted a survey asking Catholics [in the United States] who they trusted to be their leaders and guides on matters of faith and morals. Of all the groups we listed, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was found to be the least trustworthy; only 20 percent found it to be “very trustworthy.” Catholics ranked their own local bishop higher; around 29 percent described them as “very trustworthy.” But 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?
The question is good because it speaks about the bishops. But 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 bishops’ 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. On this, I recall a fifth-century author who, in my judgment, has written the best profile of a bishop. It is St. Augustine in his treatise “De Pastoribus.”
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. I do not say the others are not good, but this is one I know. 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.
[Related: Interview: Bishop Stowe wants the USCCB to take Pope Francis’ priorities seriously]
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.
Gloria Purvis: Holy Father, abortion is a heavily politicized issue in the United States. We know it is wrong. And the United States Supreme Court recently ruled that there is no constitutional right to abortion. However, it still seems to plague the church in the sense that it separates us. Should the bishops prioritize abortion in relation to other social justice issues?
On abortion, I can tell you these things, which I’ve said before. 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 and becomes more political than pastoral. I mean, let no one hijack this truth, which is universal. It does not belong to one party or another. It is universal. When I see a problem like this one, which is a crime, become strongly, intensely political, there is a failure of pastoral care in approaching this problem. 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.
Whether in this question of abortion, or in other problems, one cannot lose sight of the pastoral dimension.
Gerard O’Connell: 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.
In other words, let this be clear: A bishops’ conference has, ordinarily, to give its opinion on faith and traditions, but above all on diocesan administration and so on. The sacramental part of the pastoral ministry is in the relationship between the pastor and the people of God, between the bishop and his people. And this cannot be delegated to the bishops’ conference. 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. Obviously, each bishop must seek fraternity with the other bishops, that is important. But what is essential is the relationship with his people.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.: Holy Father, the sexual abuse crisis has greatly damaged both the church’s credibility and its effort at evangelization. Recent revelations of abuse committed by bishops, who have been allowed to retire quietly, have increased concerns about the church’s transparency in the handling of abuse cases, especially when it involves bishops. What more can the Vatican do to improve in this aspect of transparency?
Some history. Until the Boston crisis, when everything was uncovered, the church acted by moving an abuser from his place; covering up, as often happens in families today. The problem of sexual abuse is extremely serious in society. When I held the meeting of the presidents of the bishops’ conferences three and a half years ago, I asked for official statistics and [I learned that] 42 percent to 46 percent of abuses occur in the family home or in the neighborhood. After that in prevalence comes the world of sport, then that of education, and 3 percent [of abusers] are Catholic priests. One could say, “That is good, we are few.” No! If there had been only one case, it would have been monstrous. 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. It is a “new” problem in its manifestation, but eternal in that it has always existed. In the pagan world they commonly used children for pleasure. 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 allows 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. What should the church do, then? Keep moving forward with seriousness and with shame. Did I answer your question?
S.S.: The one thing I would follow up on is this: 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, and that is worrying.
Yes, and here I believe we have to go forward with equal transparency. If there is less transparency, it is a mistake.
Gerard O’Connell: Holy Father, about Ukraine: Many in the United States have been confused by your seeming unwillingness to directly criticize Russia for its aggression against Ukraine, preferring instead to speak more generally of the need for an end to war, an end to mercenary activity rather than Russian attacks, and to the traffic in arms. 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 three times 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.
Why do I not name Putin? Because it is not necessary; it is already known.
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.
Gloria Purvis: In the history of the church in the United States, Black Catholics have largely been neglected. It is our experience in the church, but we stayed because we believed. Now, a recent survey has shown that a large number of Black Catholics are leaving the church. Racism is important to us, but other Catholics do not see it as a priority. After George Floyd’s murder more people have left the church because of the neglect within the church around the theme of racism. 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? How can you encourage them?
I would say to them that I am close to the suffering they are experiencing, which is a racial suffering. And [in this situation], those who should in some way be close to them are the local bishops. The church has bishops of African American descent.
G.P.: Yes, but most of us go to parishes where the priests are not African American, and most of the other people are not African American, and they appear not to have sensitivity for our suffering. Many times they ignore our suffering. So how can we encourage Black Catholics to stay?
I believe what is important here is pastoral development, be it of the bishops or of the laity, a mature pastoral development. Yes, we see the discrimination, and I understand that they do not want to go. Sometimes in other countries the same happens in these sorts of situations. But this has a very ancient history, much older than your history [in the U.S.], and it has not been resolved. The bishops and the pastoral workers have to help to resolve it in an evangelical way.
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.
Kerry Weber: Holy Father, as you know, women have contributed and can contribute much to the life of the church. You have appointed many women at the Vatican, which is great. Nevertheless, 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 ofthe 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. I am using a category of theologians. The Petrine principle is that of ministry. 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, it is something of normal administration. 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 laypersons. 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.
So there are three principles, two theological and one administrative. The Petrine principle, which is the ministerial dimension, but the church cannot function only with that one. The Marian principle, which is that of the spousal church, the church as spouse, the church as woman. And the administrative principle, which is not theological, but is rather that of administration, about what one does.
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 believe that we have too often failed in our catechesis when explaining these things. We have relied too much on the administrative principle to explain it, which in the long term does not work.
This is an abbreviated explanation, but 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.
And on this, about the charism of women, allow me [to share] a personal experience. To ordain a priest one asks for information from persons who know the candidate. The best information that I have received, the right information, was either from my brother coadjutor [bishops], or brother laypersons who are not priests, or from women. They have a nose (olfato), an ecclesial sense to see if this man is or is not suitable for the priesthood.
Another anecdote: once I asked for information about a very bright candidate for the priesthood. I asked his professors, companions and also the people in the parish where he went. And [the latter] gave me a very negative report, written by a woman, saying, “He is a danger, this young man won’t work out.” So, I phoned her and said, “Why do you say that?” And she said: “I don’t know why, but if he were my son, I would not let him be ordained; he is lacking something.” So I followed her advice and said to the candidate, “Look, this year you won’t be ordained. Let’s wait.” Three months later this man had a crisis and left. The woman is a mother and sees the mystery of the church more clearly than we men. For this reason, the advice of a woman is very important, and the decision of a woman is better.
Matt Malone, S.J.: 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. You, of course, have always said you are following the Gospel. But how do you respond to those who say that what the church and you have to say about economics is not important?
I always ask myself, where does this labeling come from? For example, when we were returning from Ireland on the plane, a letter from an American prelate erupted that said all kinds of things about me. I try to follow the Gospel. 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, that you have rightly touched on, 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. Behind these Beatitudes and Matthew 25 there is a message that is Jesus’ own. And that is to be Christian. The communists stole some of our Christian values. [Laughter.] Some others, they made a disaster out of them.
The communists stole some of our Christian values. Some others, they made a disaster out of them.
Gerard O’Connell: Speaking about communism, 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 dialogs up to the point that is possible.
For me, the greatest model I find in the modern period of the church is Cardinal Casaroli. There is a book called The Martyrdom of Patience that is all about the work he did in Eastern Europe. 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. For example—I think of one case—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.
[Related: The Extremely High Stakes of the China-Vatican Deal]
There is another beautiful story about how the church carries out this apostolate. It’s about the last time [then Archbishop] Casaroli saw John XXIII. He gave a report on how the negotiations were going in these countries. Casaroli used to go on weekends to the prison for minors at Casal del Marmo to visit the young people. At the audience with John XXIII, they spoke about the problem of this country, that country and the other. Difficult decisions had to be taken, for example, to get [Cardinal József] Mindszenty to come to Rome; he was then in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. It was a problem, a hard decision, but Casaroli had prepared [the transfer]. And when he was about to leave, John XXIII asked him, “Eminence, one small matter: Do you still go on weekends to this prison for minors?” [When Casaroli replied,] ‘Yes,’ [the pope said,] “Give them my greetings and do not abandon them!” In the hearts of these two great men, it was as important to go to the prison and visit the young people there as it was to establish relations with Prague, Budapest or with Vienna. These are the great ones. This gives a full picture of them.
G.O’C.: Last question. You have now been pope for 10 years.
G.O’C.: If you look back, are there three things that you would have done differently, or that you regret?
All! All! [Said in English, and laughs and laughs.] All differently! However, I did what the Holy Spirit was telling me I had to do. And when I did not do it, I made a mistake.
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