ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis on Monday ruled out a trip to Mexico prior to his September arrival in the United States, as well as a stop at the US/Mexico border, saying both would add too much time to the outing.
Although it’s long been an open secret, the pontiff confirmed that he will be visiting three American cities, all on the East Coast: Philadelphia, for a Vatican-sponsored meeting of families; New York, “for the visit to the U.N.,” and Washington, D.C.
The pontiff did not mention it himself, but it’s widely believed his stop in Washington will include an address to a joint session of Congress.
Francis voiced regret that a border stop isn’t in the cards on his first trip to the United States, not just as pope, but in his entire life.
“To enter the United States from the border with Mexico would be a beautiful thing, as a sign of brotherhood and of help to the immigrants,” he said.
The pontiff’s remarks came during an hour-long airborne news conference en route to Rome, returning from a Jan. 12-19 trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
That outing wrapped up Sunday when Francis drew the largest crowd in history for a single papal event, with a Mass in Manila attended by an estimated 6 million to 7 million people who braved strong rain and wind from a tropical storm.
It’s become customary for Francis to hold a news conference on his return flight from foreign trips, with Monday’s version lasting almost a full hour. As always in these settings, the pontiff spoke in Italian.
In response to a question about families, Francis signaled no change on birth control, stating categorically that “openness to life,” meaning refraining from using contraception, “is a condition of the sacrament of matrimony.”
Yet he also urged Catholics to practice “responsible parenthood,” saying there are ways to limit births in a fashion the Church approves, and that following Church teaching doesn’t mean having children “one right after the other.”
“Being a good Catholic,” he said, doesn’t mean “breeding like rabbits.”
Francis also objected to the way developing nations sometimes face political and economic pressure to redefine the family or to blur gender roles, calling it a “colonial” intrusion on the right of every culture to make those decisions for itself.
“They take advantage of a people’s neediness to get in the door and to grow strong,” he said, though he never specified who these forces are.
Always something of a Latin American populist, Francis said these unnamed forces are at odds with “a people,” meaning the beliefs and values of a local culture. He compared this “ideological colonization” with Nazi propaganda.
On other matters, Pope Francis:
- Said he will probably canonize new American saint Junípero Serra, an 18th century Spanish Franciscan missionary who helped plant the church in California, during his stop in Washington.
- Clarified his recent remarks on the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, saying he was calling for “prudence” in talking about religious beliefs; otherwise, one risks provoking a reaction that still remains “unjust” and “wrong.”
- Confirmed that he plans to visit Africa toward the end of 2015, and that “hypothetically” the two nations would be the Central African Republic and Uganda.
- Laid out two trips to Latin America — one this year that will take him to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay, and another in 2016 featuring a homecoming to Argentina as well as stops in Chile, Uruguay, and possibly Peru.
- Said he likely won’t personally preside over a beatification ceremony for Archbishop Oscar Romero, the El Salvadoran hero of the liberation theology movement the Vatican recently declared a martyr, since it’s another Vatican official who handles the last step before sainthood.
- Denied that he snubbed the Dalai Lama in December because he was afraid of angering China, described the missed meeting as a protocol issue, and said “we’re in touch … we remain open.”
The US trip
Although it has been widely reported that Francis was planning to visit Philadelphia, New York, and Washington in September, the Vatican’s official line up to now has been that nothing is official until a definitive program for the trip is released.
On Monday, however, Francis avoided any fuzzy language and employed the simple present: “It is these three.”
Some had speculated that because Serra had been active in California, Francis might make a stop on the West Coast for the canonization ceremony. The pontiff said, “I would like to go to California,” but the time just isn’t there.
Francis said Washington is an appropriate venue for the ceremony as there’s a statue of Serra in the Capitol Rotunda, and implied that he’ll likely lead the Mass at the city’s National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
As for a possible visit to Mexico, Francis said there, too, logistics and distance make a stop unlikely, especially since he would feel obliged to make his way to the famed shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“To go to Mexico without going to visit the Madonna would be a drama,” he said, joking that “war could break out.”
Francis made clear that no doctrinal change is in the cards. Among other things, he described Blessed Pope Paul VI, who upheld the Church’s traditional position in the 1968 document Humanae Vitae, as “prophetic.”
“He saw a universal neo-Malthusianism gaining ground,” Francis said, referring to a ferment over limiting population size.
[Note: An early pioneer in demography, Thomas Malthus predicted the human population would increase relentlessly in geometric fashion, producing mass famine and eventual anarchy unless it was controlled. “Neo-Malthusian” is thus a term in Vatican parlance for contemporary movements to curtail fertility.]
Citing Italy and Spain, both with historically low birth rates, Francis implied Pope Paul has been proven correct.
The pope’s remarks come after a session with families in Manila on Friday in which he also issued a robust defense of Paul VI and the birth control ban.
However, Francis was equally clear that rejecting contraception doesn’t mean having children willy-nilly. Instead, he called on Catholics to embrace what he called “responsible parenthood.”
To illustrate the point, Francis said he’d recently met a woman at a Roman parish who was pregnant for the eighth time, and all of whose previous children had been born via C-sections.
The pontiff called her decision to become pregnant again “tempting fate.”
“Does she want to leave the seven children orphans?” he asked. “You can’t just say ‘trust in God,’ because God gives you methods to be responsible.”
Francis appeared to intend Church-approved ways of reducing the odds of pregnancy, with the most widely practiced known as “Natural Family Planning.”
“There are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors one can seek,” the pope said. “I know so many, many ways out that are licit and that have helped.”
Colonialism and ‘gender theory’
Like his comments on birth control, the pontiff’s rhetoric on colonialism also seemed to reveal a surprisingly culturally conservative streak.
The term first came up Friday night in Manila, when Francis decried what he called the “ideological colonization” of the family. A Vatican spokesman confirmed then that the phrase was a reference, in part, to gay marriage.
On Monday, Francis seemed to have something bigger in mind. As he described it, the phrase refers not just to a push for gay marriage, but to the way an entire worldview is being foisted on local cultures around the world through political and economic pressure.
Francis said the African bishops had complained about this form of colonialism during last October’s Synod of Bishops on the family, and added that “I’ve seen it myself.”
He told a story about a government education minister in Argentina who was once seeking a loan in order to build schools for the poor. The loan was offered, the pope said, but with a string attached — the school, at least its upper levels, had to use a textbook that teaches what Francis called “gender theory.”
In broad strokes, “gender theory” is a phrase used in the Vatican to refer to the idea that sexual identity is socially constructed, not determined by nature or created by God, so all sexual behaviors are more or less equal. It’s become a buzzword for approval of homosexuality and other forms of sexual behavior not condoned by the Church.
Francis seemed to take for granted that beatification will come soon, but that he won’t be doing it personally.
“Normally beatifications are done by the cardinal [who heads a Vatican department for saints] or another one,” he said.
When it does, he laughingly predicted another “war”, this one between Cardinal Angelo Amato, who head the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontificial Council for the Family, over who’ll get to lead the ceremony.
The job would normally fall to Amato, but Paglia has been the promotor of Romero’s cause for years.
Francis also returned to his controversial statements last week on the Paris attacks, in which the pope insisted that free speech has limits and made a memorable comparison with someone insulting his mother getting a punch in the nose.
Francis said on Monday that he was only trying to make a practical observation. Violent aggression is “always bad,” he said, but one nevertheless ought to be “prudent” about how far to go in provoking someone else.
The pontiff seemed anxious to clarify that the lack of a meeting with the Dalai Lami last month while the Tibetan Buddhist leader was in Rome was not an effort to placate China.
China claims Tibet as part of its territory, and has long seen the government-in-exile presided over by the Dalai Lama in India as an irritant. Whenever a politician or spiritual leader declines to meet him, there’s an automatic suspicion that somehow China played a role.
Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI both met the Dalai Lama, in John Paul’s case eight times, generally styling it as a private encounter. There had been speculation Francis and the Dalai Lama would meet in December when the latter was in Rome for a meeting of Nobel Prize winners, but the session never happened.
“It’s the protocol of the Secretariat of State not to receive heads of state, and people at that level, when they’re taking part in an international meeting here in Rome,” Francis said.
“I saw some newspapers said I didn’t receive him out of fear of China,” he said, insisting “that’s not true.”
Francis said “we’re open” to the idea of an audience another time, and confirmed that the Dalai Lama has requested one.
‘Where the sun doesn’t shine’
At several points during the news conference, Francis flashed his gift for colorful language.
For instance, on the subject of anti-corruption efforts, he described a situation shortly after he was named a bishop in Argentina when two government officials tried to involve him in a kickback scheme.
“I didn’t know whether to kick them where the sun doesn’t shine or to play dumb,” the pope said. “So I played dumb.”