by Elise Ann Allen
ROME — In a wide-ranging new interview, Pope Francis confirmed plans to visit Dubai for a U.N. climate summit in early December, addressed current global conflicts, and weighed in on several hot-button issues touched on during last month’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality, including women’s ordination and priestly celibacy.
Speaking to Italian journalist Gian Marco Chiocci, director of Italy’s TG1 television channel, Pope Francis, when asked whether he would travel to Dubai for the upcoming United Nations COP28 climate summit said, “Yes, I will go.”
The tentative dates, which have yet to be confirmed by the Vatican, are Dec. 1-3, the pope said.
Pope Francis had previously planned to attend the November 2021 COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, and had announced his intention to visit in an interview prior to the gathering, but pulled out of the trip, citing logistical complications given the short timeframe.
At the time, however, some reports suggested the real reason for the pope’s withdrawal was fear that the Glasgow summit would end without much progress, potentially leaving the impression that Pope Francis had lent his moral authority to a failure.
In his interview, the pope recalled how he published his eco-encyclical “Laudato Si’ ” just before the COP21 climate summit in Paris in 2015, saying that in his view, “the meeting in Paris was the best of all. After Paris everyone went backward, and it takes courage to go forward in this.”
Noting that there are some Pacific Islands that in 20 years may be gone due to rising sea levels, he said, “Our future is at stake. The future of our children and grandchildren. It takes some responsibility.”
Pope Francis also spoke about his Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops on Synodality, the first of two Rome-based gatherings that will culminate a global consultative process that began in October 2021 with a final Rome discussion in October of next year.
Despite polemics over certain topics of discussion such as women’s priestly ordination, the female diaconate, and LGBTQ+ issues, with papal opponents calling the synod “schismatic,” Pope Francis said the synod was “positive.”
“We talked about everything with complete freedom. This is a beautiful thing and it was possible to create a final document, which will be studied in this second part for the next session in October,” he said, voicing his belief that “we arrived precisely to that exercise of synodality that St. Paul VI had wanted” at the end of the Second Vatican Council.
On the topic of priestly celibacy, the pope said it is “a positive law, not a natural law: Priests in the Eastern Catholic Churches can marry and instead in the West there is a discipline since I believe the 12th century, which began with celibacy.”
“It is a law that can be removed, no problem,” he said, but added that “I don’t think it helps, because the problem is another,” namely, that some priests have become “spinsters.”
“The priest must be a father, he must be included in a community,” he said, saying he gets worried “when the priest looks at himself inside and makes himself look sacred. I don’t like this because he loses contact.”
In terms of outreach to the LGBTQ+ community, which despite being a significant topic of discussion during the synod was largely omitted from the synod’s closing synthesis document, Pope Francis reiterated his insistence that “everyone, everyone, everyone” is welcome in the Church because “they are people.”
“The Church receives people, everyone, and does not ask what you are like. Then inside each one grows and matures in their Christian belonging,” he said, noting that “it’s a bit fashionable” to talk about LGBTQ+ issues, but the Church always “receives everyone.”
Organizations are different, he said, saying, “The principle is this: The Church receives all those who can be baptized. Organizations cannot be baptized. People, yes.”
On the topic of women, Pope Francis noted that there are now more women working inside of the Vatican, and referred to several high-profile appointments he has made, naming women as secretaries of dicasteries and allowing women to form part of a commission that weighs in on episcopal appointments.
“Women understand things that we don’t understand, women have a special instinct for the situation and it is needed. I believe they should be inserted into the normal work of the Church,” he said.
Women’s priestly ordination is another topic, he said, saying it is “a theological problem, not an administrative problem.”
In the Vatican, women can do anything, “you can even have a woman governor, there is no problem. But from a theological, ministerial point of view, they are different things,” he said, referring to the Church’s Petrine principle, which he said covers jurisdiction, and the Marian principle, which he said “is the most important one because the Church is woman, the Church is bride, the Church is not male, she is a woman.”
“It takes theology to understand this and the power of the female Church and women in the Church is stronger and more important than that of male ministers. Mary is more important than Peter, because the Church is female,” he said, cautioning that “if we want to reduce this to functionalism, we lose.”
Pope Francis also spoke about the abuse crisis. Pointing to efforts made by his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis said “a lot of cleaning was done” on Pope Benedict’s watch, and that “they were all cases of abuse and also some from the Curia were sent away. Pope Ratzinger was courageous in this. He took that problem into his own hands and took many steps and then handed it over to finish.”
The work continues, he said, saying any abuse, whether sexual abuse or abuses of power and conscience, “should not be tolerated.”
“It is contrary to the Gospel, the Gospel is service not abuse and we see many episcopates who have done a good job at studying sexual abuse but also others,” he said, noting that most abuse happens in the family, and that even there, there is a tendency to cover up.
Pope Francis did not engage public backlash over his handling of the Church’s most high-profile current case, that of Slovene Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, who has been accused of abusing at least 25 adult women and who is now able to face a canonical trial after the pope lifted a statute of limitations for his crimes, a year after allegations went public.
He also spoke about current global conflicts, including the war in Gaza and the ongoing war in Ukraine, reiterating his assertion that “every war is a defeat. Nothing is solved with war. Nothing. Everything is gained with peace, with dialogue.”
Noting that the Gaza war began with an attack by Hamas militants who took hostages and killed civilians, and continued with retaliatory strikes from Israel, the pope noted that “in war, one slap provokes another. One strong and the other even stronger, and so we move forward.”
He advocated for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem, saying they are “two peoples who must live together. With that wise solution: two peoples, two states. The Oslo Agreement: two very limited states, and Jerusalem with a special status.”
On Ukraine and their refusal to accept peace negotiations that are not in step with their own plan, Pope Francis said, “We must not judge them today.
“The Ukrainian people are a martyr people, they had very strong persecutions during Stalin’s time. They are a martyr people … they have been a people who have suffered a lot and now anything makes them relive that. I understand them,” he said, but insisted on the need for peace, saying, “Stop! Stop for a while and look for a peace agreement, agreements are the real solution to this. For both.”
Pope Francis said his most difficult moment as pope came with the outbreak of the war in Syria and his decision to call a massive prayer vigil, because he did not know what to do and didn’t want to make the situation worse. He admitted that he is also afraid of the current war in the Holy Land and how the situation will end, but voiced confidence that it will be “resolved before the Lord.”
In terms of his own papacy and perceptions that he has a leftist agenda, Pope Francis rejected the classic political categories of “the right or the left,” saying, “They are [labels] that are not real.”
For Christians, “The real [questions] are: Is it consistent, is it not consistent? Are the things proposed consistent with the roots, or are they strange things?”
Pope Paul VI, he said, was “an innovator” and was accused of all kinds of things, “and there was nothing left-wing or communist about him … the right, the left, it’s not easy to understand what it means.”
In terms of his health and the future of the Church, Pope Francis said he still has problems with his left knee, but is able to walk, and that after his surgery for an abdominal hernia this summer, “Now I’m fine, I can eat anything.”
On the future of the Church, he said, “The Lord knows but there is always the melancholy of the past.”
“It’s something present in institutions and in the Church too. They are the ones who want to go backward, they are the ‘backward-looking’ who do not accept that the Church is moving forward, that it is on its way, because the Church is always on the move, she must grow,” he said.
Using the image of a tree, he said the Church must grow from its roots, and that “a Church that detaches itself from the roots goes backwards and loses this juice of healthy tradition, which is not conservativism, no. Tradition is growing. And it must move forward.”
Pope Francis also spoke about the migration issue and said his favorite soccer player was Pelé, a Brazilian professional footballer widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, and who died last December at 82.