Pope: Critics would be ‘happy if we had hanged 100 abuser priests in St. Peter’s Square’

The Pope’s full remarks to International Union of Superiors General on sex abuse crisis, female diaconate, development of doctrine, and the religious habit.
Fri May 10, 2019 - 4:00 pm EST
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Pope Francis attending weekly audience, Rome, March 27, 2019. Franco Origlia/Getty Images

ROME, May 10, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — If the Church had “hanged 100 abuser priests in St. Peter’s Square” at last February’s Vatican sex abuse summit, anti-abuse organizations “would have been happy” but it would not have solved the problem, Pope Francis told the International Union of Superiors General on Friday.

In an off-the-cuff address at the Vatican, the Pope also told several hundred women religious that neither secular clothing nor the traditional habit is “worse or better,” and that it all depends on “discernment.”

He also told the sisters that while “the Church is not just Denzinger” — a reference to the author of one of the best-known collections of dogmatic decrees and council definitions — faith and morals develop “in fidelity to Revelation.” He noted, however, that Revelation is “in continual movement to clarify itself” — as evidenced by his change to the Catechism on the death penalty, which he said is now “immoral.”

Meeting the Superior Generals

Entering the Paul VI Audience Hall on Friday morning, to the warm welcome of several hundred women religious from around the world, Pope Francis invited IUSG President Carmen Sammut to sit next to him for the meeting. 

IUSG President Carmen Sammut sits next to Pope Francis. Meeting with IUSG, May 10, 2019.

“I never thought I’d be sitting at the right hand of the Father,” Sr. Carmen quipped before offering introductory remarks to the Holy Father on the groups’s plenary meeting this week in Rome.

Setting aside his prepared address, Pope Francis said he preferred to “have a dialogue” with the sisters.

In brief introductory remarks to the assembled religious, he said: “You number 850 from 80 different countries and are diverse. I was thinking of thirty years ago, a meeting with superiors general, each with her own habit. All of them the same in hiding themselves.”

Pope Francis compliments religious superior from India on her habit. Meeting with IUSG, May 10, 2019.

“Today,” he continued, “each one has the habit chosen by the congregation. The modified habit, the traditional habit, a more modern habit, a national habit. I think we’ll give the prize to the superior of Jesus and Mary because she’s really elegant with the Indian habit.” 

Pope Francis thanked the religious for their “work of updating,” which he said is “risky.” 

“Growing is always risky,” he said, “but it’s riskier to get scared and not to grow. Because you don’t see the crisis now, but after you’ll be cowardly, little. Not a baby, an infant which is worse. Thank you for your work.”

The Holy Father then touched briefly on several points the IUSG president had raised in her remarks.

Regarding the clerical abuse crisis, he said: 

The Church’s solutions to the problem of abuse aren’t resolved from one day to another. A process has begun. Yesterday another document came out, and so slowly we are carrying out a process. Because twenty years ago until now we weren’t aware. Now we are becoming aware, with great shame — but blessed shame — shame is a grace of God. But it’s a process. And we have to go forward, forward, in a process step by step by step to resolve this problem. Some of the anti-abuse organizations weren’t happy with the meeting in February. “But, they didn’t do anything,” they say. I understand, there is interior suffering. If we had hanged 100 abuser priests in St. Peter’s Square, they would have been happy, but the problem would not have been resolved. Problems in life are resolved with processes, not occupying spaces.

On the particular problem of the abuse of women religious, he told the IUSG: 

It’s a serious problem. It’s a grave problem. I am aware of it, also here in Rome I am aware of the problems, of the information that arrives. And also not only sexual abuse of women religious, but also the abuse of power, abuse of conscience. We have to fight against this. And also the service that women religious offer: Please, service yes, slavery no. You didn’t become a religious to become the housekeeper for a cleric. No. But on this, let’s help each other. We can say no, but if the superior says yes. All of us together. Slavery, no. Service, yes. You work in the dicasteries, or as an administrator a nunciature, this is okay. But a housekeeper, no. If you are a housekeeper, do as Sisters […] who are nurses or keep house for the sick. This, yes, because it is service. But slavery no. On this, let’s help each other.  

Concerning the female diaconate and findings of the papal commission, he told the assembled women religious: 

On the female diaconate: when you all suggested that I appoint a commission — because the idea was yours — I said yes. I set up the commission. The commission did good work. There were all very able: men and women theologians. The all agreed up to a certain point, then each one had their own ideas. So I will give the President — I will give it to her officially today — the results of the little that everyone agreed on. Then, I have with me the personal report from each one, of ones who wanted to go further, of the ones who wanted to stop there. And this has to be studied, because I cannot make a sacramental decree without a theological, historical foundation. But they worked enough; it’s little, the result isn’t much, but it’s a step ahead. Certainly, there was a form of female diaconate in the beginning, especially in the region of Syria. I said it on the plane: they were assisting with the baptisms, in the cases of dissolving marriages, and the form of ordination was not the sacramental formula. It was, so to say — this is what those who are informed tell me, because I’m not an expert — it was like the abbatial blessing of an abbess is today, a special blessing for deaconesses. We’ll go forward. In time, I could have the members of the commission called to see how to go forward. I will officially give what was common, and I will keep, I have them — if someone is interested, according to the case, I have give them — the personal opinions of each one. But they did a good work, and I’m thankful for this. 

Pope Francis then commented on the broader question of the role of women religious in the Church, saying:  

We have to go forward in the question: what is the work of women, of religious sisters, in the Church, of women and of consecrated women. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s only a functionary work. No. Perhaps it might be — a head of a dicastery. But in Buenos Aires, I had a chancery head – there are many women who are chancery heads. It could be functionary, but it has to go beyond to something that hasn’t been developed, which we have still not understood well. I say the Church is female, the Church is a woman. Someone will say, “yes, this is an image.” No, it’s reality, it’s in the Bible, in the book of the Apocalypse. She is called the “bride” – the “bride” of Jesus. She is a woman. But on this theology of woman we have to go forward. 

German superior general poses question to Pope Francis. Meeting with IUSG, May 10, 2019.

The Pope then allowed approximately 40 minutes for questions (view full video in Italian here). The first question (at 20:45) came from a German superior general in a grey pants suit, who stood before the Holy Father and asked:

I am as Franciscan like you are and I’m here together with 850 general superiors and with many sisters who work in all the services of the Church. I speak for many women who wish to live respectfully and to serve the people of God like all other men. And we wish that today, as far as the question of women in the Church is concerned, we would not find the answer only on the basis of history or dogmatics. We also need these sources of Revelation. But we also need Jesus-like power — how Jesus treated women — and the answers we can we find today in the 21st century. I truly pray that you continue to reflect on this together with the commission, that we do not take only historical or dogmatic sources, but what humanity needs today: women, men, the whole people of God.

In his response to the superior general from Germany, the Pope covered topics from the development of doctrine and its application to the death penalty and female diaconate, to the need for “dialogue with the world” and his thoughts on the religious habit.

On the development of doctrine, he said:

It’s true what [the superior general from Germany] says. The Church is not only Denzinger, that is, the collection of dogmatic passages, of historical things. This is true, but the Church develops on her journey in fidelity to Revelation. We cannot change Revelation. It’s true the Revelation develops. The word is “development” — it develops with time. And we with time understand the faith better and better. The way to understand the faith today, after Vatican II, is different than the way of understanding the faith before Vatican II. Why? Because there is a development of knowledge. You are right. And this isn’t something new, because the very nature — the very nature — of Revelation is in continual movement to clarify itself. 

Also the very nature of the moral conscience. For example, today I said clearly that the death penalty is not acceptable — it’s immoral. But, fifty years ago, no. Did the Church change? No. Moral conscience has developed. A development. And the Fathers [of the Church] understood this. In the 800s [actually 400s] there was a French Father, Vincent of Lerins, who coined a nice expression. He says that the knowledge of faith — I’ll say it in Latin, and then I’ll translate it — ut annis consolidetur, dilaetur tempore, sublimeture aetate. That is, it grows with the years. It is continually growing. It doesn’t change, it grows. It expands with time. It is better understood. And with the years it is sublimated. 

If I see that what I think now is in connection with Revelation, it’s all right. But if it is something strange that is not contained in Revelation, also in the field of morals, which is not according to the field of morals, it’s not all right. That is why, in the case of the diaconate, we had to look to see what there was at the beginning of Revelation. And if there was something, let it grow and be clarified. If there wasn’t something, if the Lord didn’t want the sacramental ministry for women, it’s not all right. And for this, let us go to history and to dogma. 

On the need for “dialogue with the world,” he remarked:

I liked very much what mother said, because “it is not only this [i.e. doctrine],” she said. And it’s not only this. There are two more things: the first is dialogue with the world we live in. A living dialogue. And this dialogue with the world provokes new situations that require new responses. But these responses have to be in harmony with Revelation. 

Dialogue. First there is development of the faith and of morals. I explained that: always with a foundation. Second, the harmony with Revelation in dialogue. Don’t be afraid to dialogue; it’s important. 

And the third thing is witness. And on this point, I think it is more important what the mother said, she mentioned it somewhat: the need for witness. Therefore, it’s true: not only dogmatics. With Denzinger, we go nowhere in concrete life. We know what the truth is, we know what the dogma is, but how do we face this, how do we make this grow is another thing. Denzinger helps us, because the whole of dogmatics is there — all of it. But we have continually to grow. 

Regarding the religious habit, Francis said:

I had referred to your habit. Some say: “But you have changed the habit. You have ruined the consecrated life.” Not at all. In the dialogue with the world, each congregation saw how it was better to express their own charism, to express themselves. And this one (pointing to the women religious) who doesn’t have a habit. This one has that kind of habit. That one has another. Neither one is worse or better. Every congregation carries out its own discernment. 

And with this I come to the key word: to discern. We need to discern. It’s not all black or white, or even grey. It’s all a journey. It’s all a journey. But let’s walk on the right road, the road of Revelation. We cannot walk on another road. 

Pope Francis concluded his remark to the German superior general saying:

I don’t know if I responded to all the nuances in mother’s question, but I think that this works as a response. It’s true, not only dogmatic definitions and historic things will help. Not only. But we cannot go beyond Revelation and dogmatic expressions. 

You understand this? We are Catholics, eh? If someone wants to create another Church, he’s free. 

  catholic, international union of superiors general, pope francis, women deacons

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