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ROME – In a new interview with the Jesuit-run America magazine, Pope Francis defended both his concessional approach to engagement with China and his hesitancy to condemn Russia over its role in the war in Ukraine.
Asked about the Vatican’s controversial agreement with China on the appointment of bishops and his alleged silence on human rights abuses in China, Pope Francis said, “It is not a matter of speaking or silence.”
“That is not the reality. The reality is to dialogue or not to dialogue. And one dialogues up to the point that is possible,” he said, praising the late Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, who served as the Vatican’s Secretary of State from 1979-1990 under Pope John Paul II.
At the time, Casaroli was the chief architect of the Vatican’s policy of Ostpolitik toward the Communist bloc.
Casaroli’s approach was condemned by critics as being overly eager to compromise, yet it has also been praised by historians who argue that this soft tactic helped keep the church alive until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Pope Francis said Casaroli “did what he could, and slowly was able to re-establish the Catholic hierarchy in those countries.”
“Dialogue is the way of the best diplomacy,” he said, and when it comes to China, “I have opted for the way of dialogue. It is slow, it has its failures, it has its successes, but I cannot find another way.”
His remarks came amid fresh tension between China and the Holy See, which on Saturday issued a rare public criticism of the Chinese for installing an auxiliary bishop in a diocese not recognized by the Vatican, saying the move violated the terms of their 2018 provisional agreement of episcopal appointments.
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Francis also defended his apparent unwillingness to directly criticize Russia or Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“When I speak about Ukraine, I speak of a people who are martyred. If you have a martyred people, you have someone who martyrs them,” he said, saying he stresses the cruelty of the war generally because he has received lots of information about the troops responsible for these acts of cruelty.
At a general level, “the cruelest are perhaps those who … are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on,” he said, but admitted that the force responsible for invading Ukraine “is the Russian state. This is very clear.”
“Sometimes I try not to specify so as not to offend and rather condemn in general, although it is well known whom I am condemning. It is not necessary that I put a name and surname,” he said.
In terms of his refusal to directly name Putin as responsible in the war, Pope Francis said he hasn’t done it “because it is not necessary; it is already known.”
He accused critics of wanting to “latch onto a detail,” saying, “Everyone knows my stance, with Putin or without Putin, without naming him.”
The Holy See’s position “is to seek peace and to seek an understanding. The diplomacy of the Holy See is moving in this direction,” he said, and reiterated the Vatican’s willingness to mediate the conflict.
Conducted Nov. 22 and published Monday, Pope Francis’s interview with America Magazine is the first interview he has given to an American publication since taking office.
Present for the interview were Jesuit Father Matt Malone, the outgoing editor in chief of the publication; Jesuit Father Sam Sawyer, who will replace Malone; executive editor Kerry Weber; Vatican correspondent Gerry O’Connell; and Gloria Purvis, host of “The Gloria Purvis Podcast.”
In the conversation, the pope touched on a wide range of other issues, including polarization in the church in the United States, racism, abortion, and the trust between lay faithful and their bishop.
Francis said “polarization is not Catholic.”
“The essence of what is Catholic is both/and,” he said. “The Catholic unites the good and the not-so-good,” he said, saying that when polarization occurs, “a divisive mentality arises, which privileges some and leaves others behind,” whereas the Catholic approach “always harmonizes differences.”
When it comes to the US church, “you have a Catholicism that is particular to the United States—that is normal. But you also have some ideological Catholic groups,” he said.
Asked about a loss of trust in the US bishops’ conference, with one study finding that just 20 percent of faithful find it “very trustworthy,” Pope Francis said it was “misleading” to focus on the relationship between Catholics and their bishops’ conference.
“The bishops’ conference is not the pastor; the pastor is the bishop. So one runs the risk of diminishing the authority of the bishop when you look only to the bishops’ conference,” he said, saying the conference is important in terms of fostering unity among the bishops themselves, but “each bishop is a pastor” of their own flock.
The pontiff praised Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, which sits on the border with Mexico, saying he does not know where Seitz stands ideologically, but “he is a good pastor… He is a man who grasps all the contradictions of that place and carries them forward as a pastor.”
On abortion, Francis said that even on the scientific level, it is indisputable that the unborn fetus “is a living human being.”
He refrained from calling the fetus a person, saying “this is debated,” but called abortion “a crime,” and asked, “Is it right to get rid of a human being to resolve a problem? Second question: Is it right to hire a ‘hit man’ to resolve a problem?”
The problem with the abortion debate, he said, is when “killing a human being is transformed into a political question,” or when pastors talk about the issue using “political categories.”
Francis also touched on clerical sexual abuse, including the need for greater transparency when the case involves allegations against a bishop, as well as racism, calling the latter “an intolerable sin against God.”
On women’s priestly ordination, Francis said, as he has in the past, that it’s not possible from a theological perspective, but that more space ought to be created for women in leadership and administrative positions.