Pope Francis © Stefano dal Pozzolo (CBA)
Pope Francis has warned against considering misconduct of earlier times exclusively according to today's criteria. That also applies to dealing with sexual abuse, Francis said Tuesday evening on his flight back from his Baltics trip.
In earlier times, such offenses were concealed everywhere, even in families "where the uncle raped the niece, the father raped the children – because it was a huge disgrace," the pope said. Unfortunately, this is how it was dealt with in the last century.
Of course, people today are rightly outraged by scandals in the church, especially when it comes to abuse, Francis responded to a related question from journalists traveling with him. And child abuse by churchmen is particularly "monstrous," he said, because the church is supposed to bring children closer to God rather than destroy their lives.
"But there is a principle that helps me understand history," the pope said: a historical fact should be interpreted from the context of its time and not solely through a hermeneutic of today. That applies, for example, to judging crimes against indigenous populations, which have often been full of injustice and extremely cruel. It is similar with the death penalty, which was still applied in the Papal States at the end of the 19th century. century, even in the Papal States.
Moral awareness grows over the years, Francis said. The church has also had to learn. For example, he said, the report on the handling of sexual abuse in dioceses in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania showed that priests had committed assaults especially in the first 70 years of the period studied.
Recently, he said, the numbers have dropped significantly because the church has become more attentive. For example, he said, he had recently received numerous sentences against clergy from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he had urged the authority to move on. This is not negotiable.
Vatican agreement with China
On his flight back from his Baltics trip, Francis also defended the Vatican's agreement with China. The agreement to appoint bishops meant "a dialogue about possible candidates," but "in the end, the pope appoints the bishops; that is clear," Francis said. He also stated that the responsibility for the agreement lies solely with him.
A decisive impulse for him to sign the agreement with Beijing was a joint declaration of solidarity by the Chinese bishops. After the accusations against him in late August by the former nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the bishops from China wrote to him saying they stood by him. The letter was signed by a bishop of both the patriotic church and the underground church. "For me, this was a sign from God," Francis said.
Agreement not optimal
At the same time, he let slip that the agreement with Beijing was not optimal for the church. "When you make a peace agreement or any other agreement, both sides lose something," Francis said. He knows about the resistance, about the Catholics in China, who have suffered a lot. But they have a strong faith and trust in what the successor of Peter decides. He said this had become clear to him in quite a few letters from China.
The Pope did not elaborate on the content of the agreement, which has not yet been made public. He simply recalled that even in earlier times, the pope was not the only one to decide on bishops. For about 350 years, he said, the kings of Spain and Portugal appointed bishops in Latin America. To these, he said, the pope had only given his blessing. It had been similar in Austria-Hungary with Empress Maria Theresia.
Prayer for victims
The provisional agreement that has now been reached is the result of years of work in which many members of the Curia have tirelessly participated. They would have worked through the respective draft texts, which landed on his desk and had been discussed several times, in great detail. Therefore, he said, he, who was ultimately responsible, had great confidence in their work. At the end, Francis asked for prayers for those who could not understand or who had suffered underground for years.
The Vatican and China had reached a "provisional agreement" over the weekend on the appointment of bishops. Pope Francis recognized eight bishops loyal to the government who had been consecrated without papal approval. This is the first time in more than 60 years that all of China's Catholic bishops have been in communion with Rome. Parts of the Chinese church had followed the negotiations with concern. They accused the Vatican of naivety and warned of a "sellout" of the Church in China.