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Gerard O’ConnellAugust 28, 2023
Pope Francis, walking with a cane, smiles at visitors as he arrives in the Paul VI Audience Hall for his weekly general audience at the Vatican Aug. 23, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

In his recent conversation with Portuguese Jesuits in Lisbon during World Youth Day, Pope Francis commented that the situation in the Catholic Church in the United States is “not easy,” where “there is a very strong reactionary attitude” that “is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally.”

He also spoke about what should be the pastoral attitude toward L.G.B.T. persons and much else, as revealed in the transcript of the conversation published today in La Civiltà Cattolica, by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the magazine’s editor, who was present at the meeting. The full transcript can be read here.

Pope Francis addresses American Catholics who are ‘isolating themselves’

The pope spoke about the situation in the U.S. church after a Portuguese Jesuit brother, also called Francisco, who had spent a sabbatical year in the United States, told him that he was greatly affected and even suffered at seeing “many, even bishops, criticizing your leadership of the Church. And many even accuse the Jesuits, who are usually a kind of critical resource of the pope, of not being so now. They would even like the Jesuits to criticize you explicitly.”

America has learned that Pope Francis knows which cardinals, bishops, clergy and prominent laity are openly critical of his leadership of the Catholic Church, but in his answer to the Portuguese Jesuit he did not mention any names. Instead, he said,

I would like to remind those people that indietrismo [being backward-looking] is useless and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals as long as we follow the three criteria that Vincent of Lérins already indicated in the fifth century: doctrine evolves ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate. In other words, doctrine also progresses, expands and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but is always progressing. Change develops from the roots upward, growing in accord with these three criteria.

The pope went on to give some examples of the evolution of doctrine in the Catholic Church in recent times. “Today it is a sin to possess atomic bombs; the death penalty is a sin. You cannot employ it, but it was not so before. As for slavery, some pontiffs before me tolerated it, but things are different today. So, you change, you change, but with the criteria just mentioned.”

“The other sciences and their evolution also help the Church in this growth in understanding. The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.”

The first Latin American pope recalled that “Vincent of Lérins makes the comparison between human biological development and the transmission from one age to another of the depositum fidei [deposit of faith], which grows and is consolidated with the passage of time. Here, our understanding of the human person changes with time, and our consciousness also deepens.”

He added, “The other sciences and their evolution also help the Church in this growth in understanding. The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.”

He noted, however:

Some people opt out; they go backward; they are what I call ‘indietristi.’ When you go backward, you form something closed, disconnected from the roots of the Church and you lose the sap of revelation. If you don’t change upward, you go backward, and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change. And the effects on morality are devastating.

Pope Francis said, “The problems that moralists have to examine today are very serious, and to deal with them they have to take the risk of making changes, but in the direction I was saying.”

Addressing the Jesuit brother who had raised the question, Francis remarked, “You have been to the United States and you say you have felt a climate of closure. Yes, this climate can be experienced in some situations. And there you can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.”

In this context, Pope Francis paid tribute to the “courage” of Pedro Arrupe, S.J., who served as superior general of the Jesuits from 1965-83. He recalled that Father Arrupe had inherited a Society of Jesus that was “bogged down” because of a text known as the Epitome drafted by a previous superior general, the Polish Jesuit, Włodzimierz Ledóchowski, who led the order from 1915-1942. Francis described that text as “a selection of the Constitutions and Rules, all mixed up” and recalled that he had experience of this in the novitiate, “albeit with great teachers who were of great help, but some taught certain things that fossilized the Society.”

If you don’t change upward, you go backward, and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change.

Francis remarked that while the younger Portuguese Jesuits “have not experienced these tensions,” nevertheless what one of them had said “about some sectors” in the United States church “reminds me of what we [Jesuits] have already experienced with the Epitome, which generated a mentality that was all rigid and contorted.”

He concluded: “Those American groups you talk about, so closed, are isolating themselves. Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies. When you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war.”

Pope encourages ministry to homosexual and transgender people

Another Portuguese Jesuit called João, who works in the university center in Coimbra, recalled that Francis had told young people at World Youth Day in Lisbon that “we are all called as we are, and that there is room for everyone in the Church.” He told the pope that he does pastoral work with university students, and “among them are many really good ones, very committed to the Church, to the center, very friendly with the Jesuits, who identify as homosexuals.” He said they are “an active part of the Church, but they often do not see in doctrine their way of living affectivity, and they do not see the call to chastity as a personal call to celibacy, but rather as an imposition.”

He asked the pope:

Since they are virtuous in other areas of their lives, and know the doctrine, can we say that they are all in error, because they do not feel, in conscience, that their relationships are sinful? And how can we act pastorally so that these people feel, in their way of life, called by God to a healthy affective life that produces fruit? Should we recognize that their relationships can open up and give seeds of true Christian love, such as the good they can accomplish, the response they can give to the Lord?

Pope Francis said, “I believe there is no discussion about the call being addressed to everyone. Jesus is very clear about this: everyone. The invited guests did not want to come to the banquet. So he sent out to the streets to call in everyone, everyone, everyone. So that it remains clear, Jesus says ‘healthy and sick,’ ‘righteous and sinners,’ everyone, everyone, everyone,” he said, echoing the chant he led at World Youth Day. “In other words, the door is open to everyone, everyone has their own space in the Church. How will each person live it out? We help people live so that they can occupy that place with maturity, and this applies to all kinds of people.”

The pope then mentioned a priest he knows in Rome:

I know a priest who works with young homosexuals. It is clear that today the issue of homosexuality is very strong, and the sensitivity in this regard changes according to historical circumstances. But what I don’t like at all, in general, is that we look at the so-called ‘sin of the flesh’ with a magnifying glass, just as we have done for so long for the sixth commandment. If you exploited workers, if you lied or cheated, it didn’t matter, and instead sins below the waist were relevant.

Pope Francis repeated: “So, everyone is invited. This is the point. And the most appropriate pastoral attitude for each person must be applied. We must not be superficial and naive, forcing people into things and behaviors for which they are not yet mature, or are not capable.” He said, “It takes a lot of sensitivity and creativity to accompany people spiritually and pastorally. But everyone, everyone, everyone is called to live in the Church: never forget that.”

"Everyone is invited. This is the point. And the most appropriate pastoral attitude for each person must be applied. We must not be superficial and naive, forcing people into things and behaviors for which they are not yet mature, or are not capable."

In his answer, Francis also went on to speak about transgender people. He recalled that a Charles de Foucauld sister, Sister Geneviève, who is in her 80s and is a chaplain for circus performers in Rome with two other sisters, attends the Wednesday general audiences. He said Sister Geneviève “also works a lot with people who are transgender” and one day she asked him, “Can I bring them to the audience?” Francis responded, “Sure! Why not?” and so, he said, “groups of trans [people] come all the time. The first time they came, they were crying. I was asking them why. One of them told me, ‘I didn’t think the pope would receive me!’ Then, after the first surprise, they made a habit of coming. Some write to me, and I email them back. Everyone is invited! I realized that these people feel rejected, and it is really hard.”

‘The joy I have most…comes from the preparation for the synod’

A third Portuguese Jesuit gave Francis the chance to talk about the Synod on Synodality’s Roman meeting that opens on Oct. 4 when he asked: “Could you share with us what weighs most on your heart at this time? What is it that pains you the most? On the one hand, what is weighing on your heart, and on the other hand, what joys are you experiencing at this time?”

Pope Francis said, “The joy that I have most at present comes from the preparation for the synod, even though sometimes I see, in some parts, that there are shortcomings in the way it is being conducted. The joy of seeing how from small parish groups, from small church groups, very beautiful reflections emerge and there is great ferment, it is a joy.”

In what seemed an indirect response to his critics, Pope Francis emphasized, “The synod is not my invention. It was Paul VI at the end of the Council who realized that the Catholic Church had lost the sense of synodality. The Eastern part of the Church maintains it. So he said, ‘Something must be done,’ and he created the Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops. From then on there has been slow progress, sometimes imperfect progress.”

He revealed that “in 2001, I participated as president delegate in the synod dedicated to the bishop as a servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the hope of the world.” He said that when he was preparing documents on what had come from the small groups to be voted on, “The cardinal in charge of the synod said to me, ‘No, don’t put that in. Take it out.’ In short, they wanted a synod with censorship, a curial censorship that blocked things.”

The Argentine pope emphasized yet again that “synodality is not about going after votes, as a political party would. It is not about preferences, about belonging to this or that party. In a synod, the principal figure is the Holy Spirit. He is the protagonist. So you have to let the Spirit lead things. Let him express himself as he did on the morning of Pentecost.”

He concluded by identifying one of the concerns that he has at the present time: “One thing that worries me a lot, without any doubt, is war. Since the end of World War II, all over the world, wars have never ceased. And today we see what is happening in the world. It’s useless to add more words.”

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