ROME— In a new interview with a French newspaper Pope Francis stirred the waters once again, saying there must be no limit on the Church’s prosecution of sex abuse by priests, defending both secular states and religious freedom, and saying that it’s often a mistake to “clericalize” talented laity by turning them into deacons.
“It’s true that it’s not easy to judge the facts after decades, in another context,” Francis told La Croix when asked about a series of sex abuse scandals currently shaking the French church.
“Reality is not always clear,” he said.
“But for the Church, in this area, there can be no prescription,” he continued, referring to a term in the Code of Canon Law for a statute of limitations against prosecuting crimes after a certain period of time.
“With these abuses, a priest who has the vocation to lead [people] to God destroys a child,” Francis said. “[He] spreads evil, resentment, pain.”
“As Benedict XVI said, there must be zero tolerance,” Francis said.
Questioned about the specific case of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who has admitted to making mistakes in the handling of clerical sexual abuse in his diocese of Lyon, Francis said that based on the information he has, he believes Barbarin took the necessary measures.
“He’s courageous, creative, [and a] missionary,” Francis said. “We must now wait for the result of the proceedings before the civil courts.”
The pope rejected calls for Barbarin to resign.
“It would be a contradiction, imprudent,” he said. “We’ll see after the conclusion of the trial. But now it would imply he’s guilty.”
Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon and one of the highest-ranking church officials in France, is among six church officials targeted by complaints for not reporting child sex abuse cases to judicial authorities.
On secularism and the role of religion in public life, Francis said that a state “must be secular” because “denominational states end badly.”
However, he added that secularism has to be accompanied by a strong law guaranteeing religious freedom, because “we are all equal,” and everyone should have the right to express their own faith.
“If a woman wants to wear a hijab, she should be able to. Similarly, if a Catholic wants to wear a cross,” he said.
France’s laïcité means that in public buildings, state-operated primary and secondary schools or even at work, people are not allowed to wear religious symbols.
The pope addressed “a small criticism” to France in this regard, saying there’s an “exaggerated secularism,” which stems from considering religions as a subculture.
The pope also said that in the framework of a secular state, Catholics should go into the political sphere to “discuss, argue, explain and reason on” what the interviewers called “concerns on social issues,” such as euthanasia or marriage between people of the same sex.
If a liberalizing measure passes on those subjects, Francis warned, the state should respect individual consciences, saying that “conscientious objection is a human right,” including for a government official “who is a human person.”
This, he noted, is true secularism: “We can’t sweep [aside] the arguments of Catholics, saying ‘You speak like a priest.’”
The interview with two French journalists, Guillaume Goubert and Sébastien Maillard, was released by La Croix on Monday.
In it, Francis also speaks about the risk of clericalism. He gave the example of South Korea, where Christianity arrived several centuries ago and for over two centuries spread mostly through lay people.
“So there’s not necessarily a need for priests to evangelize,” he said. “Baptism provides the strength to evangelize.”
He also offered the example of Latin America, a continent marked by a strong clericalism, but said that it’s a sin committed both by the Church hierarchy and the laity: “It takes two to tango.”
“In Buenos Aires, I have known many good priests who, seeing a capable lay person, immediately exclaimed ‘Let’s make him a deacon,’” Francis said. “No, you must let the lay person be lay.”
Though Francis did not make the connection, his comment may bear on his thinking about the issue of women deacons. He recently agreed to create a commission to study that subject, in response to a request by a global group of Catholic nuns.
The journalists also asked Francis about the migrant crisis, an issue he has taken to heart since the beginning of his pontificate, recently bringing 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome with him after a five-hour visit to the Greek island of Lesbos.
He acknowledged that Europe can’t “open the doors irrationally,” but insisted on going to the roots of the crisis, considered the worst migrant disaster since World War II.
“The initial problem are the wars in the Middle East and Africa, and the underdevelopment of the African continent,” he said, stating that if there’s war it’s due to arm manufactures and arms traffickers.
Francis also warned that the migrants’ welcome can’t be “ghettoized,” but that there should be instead an effort to integrate them.
“In Brussels, the terrorists were Belgians, children of migrants, but they came from a ghetto,” he said.
Integration, he highlighted, is even more important in Europe today, with its plummeting birth rates.
Francis then answered a question on the fear some European countries have of Islam, an excuse used by many far-right politicians who want to close the borders to those fleeing ISIS in the Middle East.
“Today, I don’t think that there’s a fear of Islam as such, but of ISIS and its war of conquest, which is partly drawn from Islam,” Francis said, conceding that this is an idea inherent in the soul of Islam.
However, he added, some could interpret Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends the disciples to all nations “in terms of the same idea of conquest.”
In the face of Islamic terrorism, the pope argued, it’d be better to question the imposition of the Western democratic model in countries such as Iraq.
“We can’t advance without taking these cultures into account,” Francis said. “As a Libyan said recently, ‘We used to have one [Muammar] Gaddafi, now we have fifty.’”
Ultimately, Francis said, there’s proof of the possibility of co-existence between Christians and Muslims. One case in point, he argued, is Argentina, where they co-habit on good terms.
He also spoke of an African country where Muslims joined the Jubilee of Mercy by queueing at the cathedral to pass through the Mercy Door, and the Central African Republic, where until a recent spiral of violence they lived together “and must learn to do so again today.”
In another section of the interview, Francis was asked about the breakaway traditionalist group known as the Society of Saint Pius X and their leaders, Bishop Bernard Fellay. The pontiff praised the group saying “they love the Church,” and also their leader, calling him “a man with whom one can dialogue,” which is not the case “of other somewhat strange elements, such as Bishop [Richard] Williamson, or others who have radicalized.”
The Society of St. Pius X was founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970, in the wake of the reforming Second Vatican Council. It’s been in rupture with Rome since 1989, when the late archbishop ordained four new bishops without papal approval. One of those was British Williamson, an Holocaust denier.
“I think, as I had expressed in Argentina, that they are Catholics on the path to full communion,” Francis said.
Asked if he would consider granting them a status of “personal prelature” as a way to give them canonical status, the pope said that “it would be a possible solution” but not before a “fundamental agreement” is stablished. As an explanation, he said that the Second Vatican Council, which the group doesn’t accept, “has its value.”