Confusion abounds in Pope’s AP interview [News Analysis]
January 25, 2023
Another month, another papal interview, another spate of confusion. In a lengthy session with the Associated Press, Pope Francis made a series of puzzling and/or misleading statements about topics including homosexuality, priestly abuse, the Vatican’s policy toward China, and papal resignation.
In the AP’s lead story, the headline focused on the Pope’s statement: “Being homosexual isn’t a crime.” Most secular media outlets seemed to agree that this was the most noteworthy statement in the interview. But what the Pope said was not news.
Multiple layers of confusion
The Church has never taught that being homosexual—that is, feeling a physical attraction to members of the same sex—is wrong. Homosexual acts are morally wrong. Because he does not distinguish between the homosexual orientation and homosexual acts, his statement could be interpreted—and no doubt has been interpreted—as a break from the Church’s condemnation of homosexual acts.
Pope Francis seemed to make the appropriate distinction during the interview, but even on that point his statement was confusing:
It’s not a crime. Yes, but it’s a sin. Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.
The Church teaches that homosexual acts are sinful. Are they crimes? That is a question for secular governments—not the Church—to decide. It is quite possible that a gravely immoral act (say, abortion) could be legal in some societies, and a virtuous act (say, praying at an abortion clinic) could be defined as a crime. The criminal code set by a secular government does not change the Church’s moral teachings.
Part of the morass of confusion here may be attributable to the question posed to the Pope. According to the AP report, the Pontiff “criticized laws that criminalize homosexuality as ‘unjust.’” Even here, however, things quickly become tangled, because it is difficult to imagine how a government could enforce a ban on homosexual orientation, except by prosecuting homosexual behavior. So we are back to the crucial distinction that the Pope missed: not between a sin and a crime, but between a temptation and a sin.
Still the overall thrust of the Pope’s remarks is clear, when he says that bishops who supported bans on homosexuality “have to have a process of conversion.” The AP story, suggesting that the Pope wants the Church to adopt a more welcoming attitude toward homosexuals, is accurate. What is not accurate is the Pope’s own treatment of the issue.
Passing the buck on abuse
Questioned about sexual abuse, Pope Francis confesses that he had to undergo a “conversion” on the issue, which happened after “the bomb went off” during his trip to Chile in 2018, and he was forced to acknowledge that he had been wrong to dismiss complaints. This is a startling admission: a recognition that for half of his pontificate to date, he had been willing to accept the findings of bishops who had protected the predators. It was only in 2018, the Pope says—five years after he ascended Peter’s throne and promised to hold prelates responsible—that “I saw the corruption of many bishops in this.”
A more aggressive interviewer might have pressed the Pope on his own track record, asking uncomfortable questions about his protection of the infamous Bishop Zanchetta, for example. But the AP interview zeroed in on another embarrassing case: that of Father Marko Ivan Rupnik. Here, too, the Pope’s response to questions was thoroughly confusing.
Father Rupnik was invited to preach a Lenten Retreat to the Roman Curia in 2020, after he was disciplined by his Jesuit superiors and after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) opened a penal process that ultimately led to his excommunication. The excommunication was lifted less than a month after it was decreed. It is difficult to understand how the Jesuit priest could have been invited to preach at the Vatican, or how his excommunication could have been lifted so quickly, without the approval of the Roman Pontiff. Yet Pope Francis says that he had “nothing to do with this” disciplinary case.
Or does he? On closer reading of the AP interview, it appears that the Pope is saying that he was not involved in a later CDF decision not to pursue another case against Father Rupnik, because the statute of limitations had expired. But as the interview continues, Pope Francis goes on to say that “he ‘always’ waives the statute of limitations for cases involving minors and vulnerable adults, but tends to insist on upholding traditional legal guarantees with cases involving others.” So was it the CDF that decided not to waive the statute of limitations in the Rupnik case? Or was that dicastery following the Pope’s policy?
And by the way, the original CDF case against Rupnik involved not only sexual abuse, but also the abuse of the confessional. It was the latter crime for which he was excommunicated. If the new complaint was similar, the Pope’s explanation for invoking the statute of limitations would be irrelevant.
Mixed messages on the Synodal Path
On the delicate question of the German bishops’ Synodal Path, and the danger of outright schism that it could provoke, Pope Francis was cautious, saying that “the German experience does not help.” He warned against the danger “that something very, very ideological trickles in.” However, rather than confronting the problem directly, and pointing out the issues on which the German bishops are calling for fundamental changes in Church teaching, the Pope downplayed the doctrinal problems. Instead he conveyed the impression that the German hierarchy is simply moving too fast.
“We must be patient, dialogue, and accompany these people on the real synodal path,” the Pope said. This approach is the best answer to the German bishops’ initiative, he explained, “so that it does not end badly in some way, but so is also integrated into the Church.” If the German bishops’ radical ideas could be “integrated into the Church” at a more moderate pace, nothing in the AP interview suggests that Pope Francis would object.
—Philip F. Lawler
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Posted by: rfr46 -
Jan. 27, 2023 4:45 AM ET USA
This is an example of PF's modus operandi. Confusion is a deliberate tactic to change a rule in stages: first, create confusion about the rule; then fail to enforce the rule; then allow critics to accept the nonenforcement as a practical reality; finally, formally repeal the old rule. It all starts with confusion. PF knows exactly what he is doing. It is a feature, not a bug, in his pontificate.
Posted by: romy1277408 -
Jan. 25, 2023 10:52 PM ET USA
Thanks so much, Phil, for trying to make sense out of this but the Pope is not up to the task and it is quite obvious. We can only pray for him and ask God to find a suitable successor.
Posted by: fsj -
Jan. 25, 2023 7:41 PM ET USA
I'm exasperation-fatigued with the recurrent gaffs of the current Pontiff. All I can muster by way of response is a prolonged sssiiiiiiighhh of resignation and an aspiration of prayer that his intentions are pure despite his misstatements.
Posted by: ewaughok -
Jan. 25, 2023 6:50 PM ET USA
Yes Bergoglio always sends confusing, if not forthrightly illogical, messages concerning Catholic doctrine. However, it would be naïve to interpret this as confusion in his own mind. He knows what he’s doing. By sending confusing messages, he confuses the faithful about what the church actually teaches. That is why he doesn’t contradict misrepresentations or errors in the Church’s teaching when put forward by liberals in the church, such as the German bishops or Fr Martin SJ. He wants it slower