ROME—As the eyes of the world were on Donald Trump being sworn in on Friday, Pope Francis was talking about the new American President too. On the one hand he said it would be “reckless” to judge before Trump acts, on the other warned against political “saviors” who promise to solve a crisis and end up destroying the people who embraced them.
At one point, speaking about the rise of populism both in Europe and the Americas, Francis even invoked the specter of Adolph Hitler.
“All of Germany voted for Hitler. He didn’t steal power, he was elected by his people, and then he destroyed his people,” Francis said. “That’s the danger.”
“In moments of crisis, discernment doesn’t work, and for me it’s a continual reminder,” the pope said. “[People think], ‘Let’s seek a savior who will give us back our identity and defend us with walls, with wires, with whatever, from others who can rob our identity,’ and that’s very alarming.”
Pope Francis made the comments in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais on Friday.
Asked directly about Trump, Francis largely demurred.
“To be worried or happy for what may happen, in this I think we can become reckless … in being prophets either of calamities or good things that won’t happen,” Francis said.
“We will see what he does, and then evaluate.”
When the journalist insisted, asking, “Aren’t you worried by what you’ve heard so far?” the pope went back to his answer: “I wait. God waited for me for so long, with all my sins …”
In comments with relevance to immigration debates, Francis said that nations have the right to control their borders, even more so those facing the danger of terrorism. However, he said, “no country has the right to deprive its citizens of dialogue with its neighbors.”
In the wide-ranging interview, Francis talks about many of his usual topics, such as migration and the need to integrate newcomers, lamenting that the Mediterranean Sea has become a cemetery. He also defines Latin American Liberation Theology as a “positive thing,” speaks of freedom of religion in China and the conclave that will choose his successor.
Francis also addressed the criticism he’s received from some quarters, saying that he’d have the attitude of a “dictator” if he tried to stop people from questioning his decisions, but added they should do so openly, not “throw the stone and hide their hand.”
On China, one of the few remaining nations that doesn’t have diplomatic ties with the Holy See, Francis talked about an ongoing Vatican dialogue with Peking, and, as he’s done before, he expressed his readiness to visit the country whenever he’s welcome.
“They know that I’ll be there when I’m invited,” he says.
In comments that may irritate some religious freedom advocates, he added: “Besides, in China the churches are full. You can practice religion in China.”
As of mid-2016, at least three bishops and more than a dozen priests were in prison in China, and Catholics in various parts of the country routinely complain of harassment and intimidation. Other observers, however, may argue that Francis is implementing an Ostpolitik-strategy, avoiding confrontation to save the local Catholic population further difficulty.
Asked about Liberation Theology, a movement born following the 1968 meeting of the Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, Francis said that it was a “positive thing,” although with a section which “opted for the Marxist analysis of reality” and was condemned by the Vatican.
That analysis of reality, the pope said, was a “deviation.”
The journalist then asked about Pope Paul VI, saying he was a misunderstood pope, and asked Francis if he feels misunderstood as well. The Argentine pontiff said no, he doesn’t.
“I feel accompanied by all kinds of people, young, old … Yes, some perhaps aren’t in agreement, and they have the right to it, because if I felt bad because someone doesn’t agree [with me] there would be in my attitude a seed of a dictator.”
People, Francis insisted, have the right to think that the path upon which he is leading the Church is dangerous or could bring bad results. He called the critics to dialogue, saying he wished the Church did that more because it brings people together.
During the 75-minute interview, the pope also spoke about the corruption in the Church, saying that four years ago when Benedict XVI handed him a white box in Castel Gandolfo, the summer papal residence, with a summary of the Vatican’s situation, “Everything was there.”
“The normality of the life of the Church: saints and sinners, decent and corrupt [people],” Francis said, insisting that in the Vatican there are “many saints,” not only corrupt people.
He refers to his predecessor as a “saint,” complimenting his “memory of an elephant,” capable of remembering all the information contained in the box. Francis also says that Benedict is in perfect health, and that his mind is intact.
“The problem is the legs,” he said. “He walks with assistance.”
The pope also said that more than the corruption, he’s worried about a “Church numbed by worldliness,” with a hierarchy and pastoral agents far from the problems of its people.
The interview closed with the journalist asking what kind of conclave he’d like to choose his successor, to which Francis said: “Catholic. That it’s a Catholic conclave that chooses my successor.”
“And will you see it?” the journalist asks, implying, but not voicing the possibility of a resignation.
“This I don’t know,” Francis said. “May God decide. When I feel that I can’t go on anymore, my great teacher Benedict taught me how to do it. And if God takes me before, I’ll see it from the other side. I hope not from hell …”