VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In an interview aired on Monday (Sept. 5), Pope Francis spoke about the ongoing war in Ukraine, clergy sex abuse and the role of women in the Catholic Church — but stayed vague on whether his pontificate, ailed by knee pains, will continue.
In the interview, conducted Aug. 11 by CNN Portugal, Francis said “the pope will go” to the World Youth Day scheduled in Portugal for 2023, but added that it might not be him.
Rumors surrounding Pope Francis’ retirement have circled widely since the 85-year-old pontiff convened an unusual August summit of cardinals, the largest to date at the Vatican, to address the enactment of his reforms. He also visited the tomb of Pope Celestine V, the last pope to step aside before Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world with his resignation from the pontificate in 2013.
Francis’ own struggles with sciatica and knee pain have forced him in recent months to use a wheelchair and cancel public trips and events. He said his hopes to travel to the war-torn Kyiv in Ukraine and the Russian capital of Moscow are “up in the air” as he follows the advice of his doctors.
The pope’s approach to the war, focusing on peace and offering to mediate between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has drawn significant criticism from those who wish to see the Vatican explicitly condemn Russia for the attack.
“I had a dialogue with both” Putin and Zelenskyy, Francis said. “They both visited me here before the war. And I always believe that in dialogue we always move forward,” he added.
“You know who doesn’t know how to talk? Animals. They are pure instinct,” he said.
Francis said he still plans to visit Kazakhstan for a congress of global religions Sept. 14-16, even though the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has canceled his attendance at the event.
While the pope has struggled to bring his vision to international political affairs, he has enacted decisive reforms aimed at cleaning up house at the Vatican. He enforced the mandatory reporting of abuse cases by clergy to civil authorities in 2019, while removing the veil of secrecy that has traditionally surrounded abuse trials at the Vatican.
Francis’ “zero tolerance” policy has also been criticized for not doing enough to remove the systemic causes of abuse in Catholic institutions, which some claim are tied to celibacy among priests.
“It’s not celibacy,” the pope said in the interview. “Abuse is a destructive, humanly diabolical thing.” Francis pointed to the frequency of abuse cases in families, schools, clubs and sports teams to underline that celibacy is not the decisive factor. “Therefore, it is simply the monstrosity of a man or woman of the church, who is psychologically ill or malevolent, and uses his position for his personal gratification. It’s devilish,” he added.
The pope made it clear in the interview that “the abuse of men and women of the church — abuse of authority, abuse of power and sexual abuse — is a monstrosity” and said it’s good that abuse cases become known. He reinforced his commitment to zero tolerance for abusers in the church, adding that he suffers when these cases are brought before him.
He also spoke to CNN about his support for greater female involvement in the traditionally male dominated church. “The church is feminine,” he said, adding that since his appointing of women at the Vatican he has received better counsel on the ordination of priests and bishops.
In July, Francis appointed three women to the committee that selects bishops, adding them to the growing roster of women occupying significant positions at the Vatican and in the Catholic Church. “The entry of women is not a feminist trend. It is an act of justice that culturally had been set aside,” he said.
The pope also said the Vatican Council for the Economy “started to work better” after five women were appointed. Still, Francis used language rooted in traditional gender roles to illustrate the “feminine” features that women bring to the table.
“The woman has a different way of doing things than ours because she reasons in another way. She has motherhood, which is different,” he said.