ROME – In a wide-ranging interview with the Associated Press, Pope Francis has spoken out on several hot-button issues such as sexual abuse and relations with China, but in perhaps his most unexpected comments, the pontiff called the ongoing ‘Synodal Path’ reform process of the Catholic Church in Germany “ideological” and “made by the elites.”
In the interview, conducted Jan. 24 at the pope’s Vatican residence and published Wednesday, Francis spoke of the “synodal reform” unfolding at various levels of the church, including the universal level with his own Synod of Bishops on Synodality, and also at the level of individual bishops’ conferences with national synod processes.
Speaking of the church in Germany’s controversial “Synodal Path” process, which is nearing its conclusion, the pope said “the German experience does not help, because it is not a Synod, it is not a serious synodal path. It is a so-called synodal path, but not one with the totality of the people of God, but one made by the elites.”
The German Synodal Path, he said, was “a bit elitist, and does not have all the procedural consensus of a synod as such.”
While entering into dialogue is a good thing, Pope Francis warned that “the danger is that something very, very ideological trickles in. When ideology gets involved in church processes, the Holy Spirit goes home, because ideology overcomes the Holy Spirit.”
Germany’s “Synodal Path” was convened in 2019 to discuss needed church reforms in response to the country’s clerical sexual abuse crisis, with the aim of giving laypeople more prominent roles in church leadership.
However, the process quickly became controversial over outspoken calls from prominent members, bishops and laypeople alike, for women to be ordained priests and for priests to administer blessings to same-sex couples. There have also been proposals to end mandatory priestly celibacy and allow clergy to marry; to formally approve of same-sex marriage; and to allow laypeople a role in electing their bishops.
Last summer the Vatican issued a statement warning the German bishops against stoking division and insisting that the “Synodal Path” holds no authority on matters of doctrine and morals. In response, Germany’s bishops said they were surprised, and hoped to discuss the process further.
This discussion happened last November when the German bishops traveled to the Vatican for their regular ad limina visit to Rome. During that visit, a meeting was held between the German bishops who came and the heads of several Vatican departments, with some Vatican officials proposing a “moratorium” on the German Synodal Path.
While that proposal was ultimately rejected, with both parties agreeing to continue dialogue, debate flared up again this week with the publication of a Vatican letter to the German bishops appearing to shoot down a proposal for the establishment of a national Synodal Council, a new permanent legislative body made up of bishops and laypeople governing the church in Germany.
The Vatican said the proposed Synodal Council risked replacing national bishops’ conferences, thus undercutting the authority of bishops, and was therefore not canonically valid. The head of the German bishops, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, responded, calling the Vatican’s concerns, while valid, “unfounded.”
In his interview with the Associated Press, Pope Francis also spoke of his ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, a multi-year consultation process aimed at making the church more attentive and inclusive toward everyone.
Noting that the need to create more space for women, especially in positions of leadership, was among the most prominent topics raised during the diocesan phase of the consultation process, Francis said any “newness” that comes out of the process would not be from him personally, but the Holy Spirit.
Calls for women’s priestly ordination and for the female diaconate are “previous agendas,” he said, noting that the question of married priests and the female diaconate received a lot of attention in the lead up to his 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, and in the end, the issue was sidelined by other, more pressing issues for the region, such as the need for more catechists and a seminary to foster local vocations.
Pope Francis also touched on the clerical abuse crisis, the need to eliminate laws criminalizing homosexuality, and the Vatican’s relationship with China, as well as his health and reaction to his critics.
On abuse, the pope stressed the need for greater transparency and attention to vulnerable adults, and said recent allegations made public against fellow Jesuit, Slovenian Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, came as “a surprise and a wound.”
A famed speaker and artist whose murals adorn basilicas and chapels throughout the Vatican and the world, Rupnik is accused of sexually and psychologically abusing several nuns in the 1990s. A Vatican investigation into allegations against Rupnik last year yielded no punishment due to a statute of limitations.
Rupnik was briefly excommunicated in 2020 for using the confessional to absolve a woman with whom he had engaged in sexual activity, but the excommunication was lifted within a month. Rupnik’s ministry has been restricted by his Jesuit order, but so far, those are the only consequences he has faced.
Pope Francis said his only intervention in Rupnik’s case was to let it continue with the normal court, because, if not, procedural paths are divided and everything gets muddled up. So I had nothing to do with this.”
He said he did not lift the statute of limitations in Rupnik’s case because it did not involve minors.
In terms of his health, the pope said he is generally in “good health,” and that “for my age, I’m normal.” Asked about his emotional health, Francis jested that, “I’m a bit crazy,” but overall, “good.”
Francis revealed that bulges in his intestinal wall had returned, following a surgery in July 2020 in which 13 inches of his colon was removed due to what the Vatican said was inflammation causing a restriction and hardening of the colon.
He said a small fracture in his knee from a fall last year, which has often confined him to the use of a cane and a wheelchair, had healed without surgery thanks to laser and magnet therapy.
Speaking of his critics and fresh resistance to his papacy following the death of his predecessor Benedict XVI on Dec. 31, the pope said this criticism has always been there, but said it has more to do with “the wear-and-tear of a government of 10 years” than his predecessor, who was often depicted as being at odds with Pope Francis’s approach to the church’s pastoral practice.
“At the beginning there was the surprise…and there were good things. And when they start to see the flaws that I have, there are some who don’t like it. In any diverse way of thinking, there is criticism,” he said, saying, “one prefers there isn’t (criticism), for the sake of quietness,” and said critiques of his governance are “like a rash, that bothers you a little bit.”
However, Francis said he prefers to have criticism, “because that means that there is freedom to speak,” but that “All I ask for is that they bring the criticism in front of me, because that’s how we all grow.”
Speaking of the late Australian Cardinal George Pell, who died earlier this month after a routine hip surgery and who was later revealed to be the author of an anonymous letter calling Francis’s papacy a “catastrophe,” the pope said, “he has the right to criticism. The right to criticism is a human right,” but that Pell had helped him a lot with the Vatican’s financial reform and was “a great guy.”
Asked whether he has contemplated issuing new norms governing the office of a pope emeritus now that Benedict XVI, who shocked the world with his historic resignation in 2013, had died, Francis said he hasn’t thought of it, and revelated that “I didn’t even think about writing a will, about myself.”
“I think that things have to happen on their own. And after a few more experiences [of papal resignation], there could be more regularization, or more regulation, right? But, in any way, it’s not a thought that came to me,” he said.
On dialogue with China and the Holy See’s agreement with China on bishop appointments, Pope Francis stressed the need for patience, saying, “China is a complex world, but we are taking steps.”
Each episcopal appointment “is looked at with a magnifying glass, if not, what if there is serious dialogue. And that, that’s the main thing, that the dialogue doesn’t break,” he said, saying the Chinese “are nice too, but sometimes a little closed, sometimes not….You have to walk patiently.”
He also voiced admiration for Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, 91, who last fall was convicted and fined by a Hong Kong court for his support of the city’s all but squashed pro-democracy movement.
Zen, who received special permission from Hong Kong authorities to attend Benedict XVI’s Jan. 5 funeral and who has been one of the most vocal critics of Pope Francis’s China policy, is “a charming old man” and “a tender soul,” Francis said.
Noting that he met with him while Zen was in town for Benedict’s funeral, Francis called him “brave,” and said he “began to cry, like a child,” when he came to the pope’s study and saw a statue of Our Lady of Sheshan, a Chinese image of the Virgin Mary.
“The most feisty part of Zen is kind of disappearing,” he said, saying, “I’m not saying that it isn’t there. It is there, but it is hidden behind this pastoral side.”
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