For The Pope: Answers, the much-talked-about documentary now streaming on Hulu, Pope Francis sat down with a group of young people of different faiths– some Catholic, some Christian, some atheists or agnostics, some ex-Catholics– to answer their questions on the Church and life. What was remarkable about this gathering was that these young people were truly seeking understanding. And Pope Francis wanted them to understand as much as they were willing to understand.
As is usual for Pope Francis, he was conversational in tone but explanatory. He was non-judgmental but pulled no punches. The conversations were tough ones and each side took turns pressing and listening. Real growth occurred for all present. Pope Francis’ strength is his pastoral ability to meet people where they are while calling them on to more.
Many of the young people’s questions were related to “cleaning house” in the Church– from predators, abusers, and corrupt individuals. Francis said that there is “zero tolerance. That is the policy of the Church…A reform of the Church should happen from the inside out, and the Church should always be reformed.” So we start from the inside. In regards to pederasty in the Church and perpetrators, Francis said,
The issue of abuse of minors is serious. Not just in the Church, but everywhere. In the case of the Church, it is even more scandalous because you destroy people in the very place where you should protect them. There are men and women who destroy. The abuse destroys a child. And if it’s a Church person, the hypocrisy and double-life is horrific.
An Opus Dei numerary abused one of the young people when he was a child. The young person presented the Pope with a letter his father wrote to the Pope and then the declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which urged the good name of the numerary to be reinstated, despite the fact that he was convicted. The Pope promised to reopen this case and deal rightly with the perpetrator. This is one example of how the Pope uses his pastoral tools to set wrongs right and gain the trust of those around him.
Another topic was abortion. Francis insisted that we should always accompany women, no matter what choice they have made. “A woman who has an abortion cannot be left alone, we should stay with her…We shouldn’t send her to hell all of a sudden or isolate her, no. We should stay by her side.” However, the Pope also clearly affirmed Catholic teaching on abortion to a pro-choice young person:
Is it valid to eliminate a human life to solve a problem? You’d go to a doctor. So, is it valid to pay a hitman to eliminate a human life to solve a problem?…we should call a spade a spade. Staying by [the woman’s] side is one thing, but justifying the act is something else.
Always tough on sin, but gentle with the sinner, this is Pope Francis’ modus operandi.
On whether there is space in the Church for LGBTQIA+ people, this was how Francis navigated the question:
Every person is a child of God, everyone. God doesn’t reject anyone, God is a father. And I don’t have the right to kick anyone out of the Church. My duty is to always welcome. The Church cannot close its doors on anybody. Anybody.
This takes our understanding of God’s fatherhood to a new level. He is not only Father to those who wish to have a father, but to those who don’t realize they need a father or refuse to acknowledge they have one. Fraternity is key, even when we are of different worldviews. We aim for unity, even when we disagree.
Many headlines last week were about Pope Francis’s comments on Tinder. Although he seemed unfamiliar with what Tinder (the popular “swipe right” dating and hook-up app) was, the young people told him it was an app for meeting people. So Francis responded,
Young people have an eagerness to meet and that’s a good thing. One of the things I admire about young people is the absence of borders, and I mean it in a good way. You have family borders, country borders, maybe religious borders. But, as humans, you go further…You want to discover, you want to go further, you want to take risks. And that is good for you, because it also teaches you that ideological mind-frames are relative, whether they come from a society, a political party, or a church.
Connection is good. It is what we do with that connection that matters.
Finally, on the ever-present stigma surrounding pornography and sex, Pope Francis made sure to distinguish between the beauty of sex and that which diminishes a person because it is used outside of its purpose.
Obviously, pornography diminishes. It doesn’t help you grow…To express oneself sexually is something rich. Anything that diminishes a true sexual expression diminishes you as well, it renders you partial, and it diminishes that richness. Sex has a dynamic of its own. It exists for a reason. It is an expression of love. That’s probably the core of sexual activity.
Noting that those around him were skeptical of the Church’s knowledge on this subject, Francis then said, “The catechism regarding sex is still in a very early stage. I think we Christians haven’t always had a mature catechism regarding sex.” This means that we are to listen to each other and the Church must also listen to us. To understand this beautiful gift, we dig deeper at every opportunity.
The Pope: Answers gave fewer straightforward answers than anyone on any side hoped, but it gave something better: a pastoral model to follow when dealing with each other. A methodology for listening, understanding, and growth. These are tools the Pope yields well and from which we could learn a great deal.
Image courtesy of https://press.hulu.com/news/2023/03/15/the-pope-answers-set-to-premiere-april-5-exclusively-on-hulu-in-the-u-s/
Theresa Zoe Williams is a writer with credits all over the Catholic inter-webs. She received her BA in Theology, Catechetics/Youth Ministry, and English Writing from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She has contributed to the books Catholic Hipster Handbook: The Next Level and Epic Saints: Wild, Wonderful, and Weird Stories of God's Heroes. And has written her own book, A Catholic Field Guide to Fairy Tale Princesses. She is Pennsylvanian by birth, Californian by heart, and in Ohio for the time being. She writes at The Future Patron Saint of Liars and Fakes at www.theresazoewilliams.substack.com. Yinz can find her on Twitter @TheresaZoe.