(RNS) Pope Francis has once again given a startlingly candid interview that reinforces his vision of a Catholic Church that engages the world and helps the poor rather than pursuing culture wars, and one “that is not just top-down but also horizontal.”

A shirt is thrown into the popemobile as Pope Francis arrives for an encounter with youth in Cagliari, Sardinia, Sept. 22. Photo by Paul Haring/courtesy Catholic News Service

A shirt is thrown into the popemobile as Pope Francis arrives for an encounter with youth in Cagliari, Sardinia, Sept. 22. Photo by Paul Haring/courtesy Catholic News Service


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The pope’s conversation with Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist and well-known editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, took place at the pope’s residence in the Vatican guesthouse on Sept. 24 and was published on Tuesday (Oct. 1).

His newest bombshell come just two weeks after the publication of the pope’s lengthy, groundbreaking interview with a Jesuit journalist in which Francis said the church was “obsessed” with a few moral issues, like abortion and homosexuality, and needed an “attitude” adjustment if it hopes to strike a “new balance” in its approach to the wider world.

Issues of sex and gender were absent from the newest exchange, although at the end of the interview the pontiff, unbidden, asked Scalfari to return again so that they could “discuss the role of women in the church. Remember that the church is feminine,” Francis told him.

Instead, the pope and Scalfari focused on two main themes that could have a revolutionary impact on the papacy and Catholicism: the need for the church to reject its own defensive and even sinful practices, and the imperative to listen and learn from others — including nonbelievers like Scalfari.

“Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us,” Francis said.

“I believe in God, not in a Catholic God; there is no Catholic God. There is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation,” he said — phrases that are likely to further raise the ire of traditionalists who have been flummoxed and often infuriated by Francis’ willingness to upend the church’s long-standing customs.

“Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good. … Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

Francis also made it clear that a chief evil in the church was the “narcissism” of its leaders and the command-and-control way of operating from Rome, even calling the papal court a “leprosy of the papacy.”

It is likely no coincidence that the latest remarks came just as Francis convened the first meeting of his new council of eight cardinals, often called the “Gang of Eight” — who he appointed from beyond Rome to advise him on revamping the crisis-plagued Vatican government. That was a priority for the cardinals who elected Francis as pope last March.

“This is the beginning of a church with an organization that is not just top-down but also horizontal,” Francis said, words that may be the organizing principle for the Gang of Eight, which began three days of closed-door meetings on Tuesday. The advisory board is led by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras and includes Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.

The problem in the past, Francis told Scalfari, is that the church has been run from the Vatican, and the Vatican pursues its own interests.

“This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I’ll do everything I can to change it,” he vowed. “The church is or should go back to being a community of God’s people, and priests, pastors and bishops, who have the care of souls, are at the service of the people of God.”

“Heads of the church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers,” he said at another point. “The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”

Francis reiterated that the “most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old” and he castigated the “savage” economic system that creates “intolerable inequalities.”

He added that he trusted Catholics in political life to “carry the values of their religion within them” and to exercise them without undue interference from church leaders — an approach that could signal a divergence from the political activism of the U.S. hierarchy in recent years.

“The church will never go beyond its task of expressing and disseminating its values, at least as long as I’m here,” Francis declared.

How far Francis will be able to go toward realizing his goals is unclear. He is 76 years old, and appears to be in good health.

But he needs time to accomplish what he admits will be a lengthy process of reforming the church, and with each pronouncement he risks alienating cultural conservatives in the hierarchy or those who want to preserve the institutional church’s traditions.

But Francis also made it clear that if he is beloved by the public for his pastoral approach, he is also no pushover: “I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.”

15 Comments

  1. Great for Francis! Finally, a pope who’s real and not just an institutional front figure. A pope who can think and speak for himself, not just recite other popes’ catechisms. Now let’s see the Catholic Church respect that right for everyone else, both those within the church, and those outside. Let’s see the Catholic Church become what the Episcopal Church of the United States used to call itself years ago, as a member of the Anglican Communion, “The Largest Church in Christendom.” That can happen if the church returns to Vatican II and remains faithful to it.

  2. “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is good . . . Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.” This is the theological equivalent of “if it feels good, do it”. Needless to say, Nazis, Fascists, Communists, dictators, and criminals of every stripe have their own visions of good and evil. These visions have led them to commit the most heinous crimes. The last thing humanity needs are more self-serving definitions of good and evil. I thought the Church was supposed to supply moral guidance. That requires moral certainty, a quality evidently in short supply now.

  3. Thank you, David, for that perceptive analysis.

    But doesn’t the basic question remain. Is Francis’ main objective to save Cardinals from government investigators? A secret meeting after a six month buildupwith some of the “usual suspect” Cardinals seems like a bad way to begin.

    For further analysis, please see my new discussion at ChristianCatholicism.com entitled, “Is Council of Cardinals Real Reform Or Just More Stalling?”. The link is http://wp.me/P2YEZ3-PT

  4. He doesn’t seem to be too concerned about the evil perpetrated on the Christians and other religious minorities of the Middle East. When he gets the child abuse scandal fully under control, also, then, I will believe he recognizes evil. He is just too exaggerated of a figure for me at this time.

  5. As a Secular Humanist, I applaud much of what Pope Francis has to say. I wish him the best of luck in his attempts to clean up the Vatican deadlock and decay, and improve the lives of the Catholic people. The “moral certainty” that is referred to led to centuries of censorship, persecution, physical abuse and murder by the “Mother Church”. It continues. I hope that the wealth accumulated by the Vatican somehow can be, at least partially, redistributed to help do away with the abject poverty of many non-Vatican- situated Catholics everywhere. I have not visited huge numbers of Catholic cathedrals. However beautiful, they disgust me. The gold and silver embellished churches in Mexico are a terrible contrast with the lives of the impoverished Mexican indigenous peoples on whom Catholicism was forced.

  6. The Pope says “there is no Catholic God.” Just God. It’s a giant step in the right direction towards interfaith harmony! The weakest link in discussions about God, science, and interfaith harmony stems from narrow dogma. Full disclosure: I am a researcher and author on this subject. Regards, Sanjay C Patel

  7. If the church is not meant to proselytize and make disciples (Christians) among all the nations, what is the church for then? Even Jesus Himself said to go out into the world and make disciples of all men and women. If the church starts focusing on helping the poor only, then that makes the church just another NGO among many other non-Christian NGOs.

    We lose our saltiness, become worthless.

  8. the pope said there is no catholic god…contradicts my upbringing as a catholic because along with the God we learned about dismisses the new testament which is accepted by all catholicts and rejected by most all other religions meaning the cruxicifiction….the resurection…the sacraments…..and strive to be in the state of grace to enter heaven…..many catholics are very puzzled by this pope and think his liberal agenda will hurt them.

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