In a wide-ranging interview with Reuters, Pope Francis sought to quash resignation rumours but may have only ignited them further, and while the Holy Father condemned abortion in the aftermath of the decision to overrule Roe vs. Wade, he seemed not to quite condemn those who advocate for abortion access. The Pope first addressed having to cancel his trip to Africa, something cited as a sign of his supposedly declining health. The Pontiff said: “I will do the one [trip] to Canada because the doctor told me, ‘With 20 more days you will recover.’ But (they told me) this trip (to Africa) is a health risk.” The inference seems to be that the Pope is relatively fit, with a trip to North America pencilled in. The Pope later said “after I come back from Canada; it is possible that I manage to go to Ukraine.” He also spoke about going to Russia.
Of course, it is not unusual for an 85-year-old to cancel trips and the Pope seems confident about heading to North America. But will rumours subside? Speculation about the Pope’s future was renewed by the announcement of a proposed visit to L’Aquila in Abruzzo in August – something other Pontiffs have undertaken before retirement. The Holy Father has certainly been looking frail of late, catalysing rumours of ill health. On the point of knee problems, the Pope said “I am well, I am slowly improving and technically the calcification has already occurred, thanks to all the work done with the laser … and magnet therapy.” He spoke of an inflamed ligament and a fractured bone.
Directly addressing cancer rumours – which have also been mounting – Pope Francis jokingly said: “They didn’t tell me. They explained everything to me well – full stop. No. That is court gossip.” Critics would counter that this is what the Pope might say if he wanted to nip rumours in the bud. Moreover, as John Gizzi – Chief Political Correspondent for Newsmax – recently pointed out, one Vatican insider has warned that the Pope “is not going to be around for long”, adding “at the most, he will be there until December.” Suggesting that his health problems caused some to “think that the same ‘liturgy’ would happen”, the Pope insisted this was not the case “for the moment”. The words seem less than equivocal, and what he said about resigning will likely raise eyebrows.
At the start of his papacy, Pope Francis said he would like to see the resignation of popes become normalised, and in 2015 said he had a feeling his pontificate would be brief, describing his predecessor’s decision to resign as “courageous”. Fuelling speculation further, the Pope told Reuters, “when the time comes that I see that I can’t do it (run the Church, because of bad health) I will do it (resign).” Reiterating his earlier support for Pope Benedict XVI’s decision, Pope Francis talked about his predecessor’s “great example”, adding it “was such a very good thing for the Church.” The Holy Father added: “He told popes to stop in time. He is one of the greats, Benedict.”
That Pope Francis will soon host a consistory to create 21 cardinals has fuelled resignation rumours. The fact that after the consistory, 82 of the 132 cardinal electors will have been appointed by the Pope suggests the Holy Father’s objective might be to ensure any successor reflects his more liberal position on several key issues. This may indicate the Pope is planning for a Church soon to be without him but with his legacy ensured.
The big question was the decision by the US Supreme Court in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, handing the power to legalise abortion back to the US states. While the Church’s position on abortion is clear – something the Pope reiterated – the Holy Father caused shockwaves last month when he met with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an outspoken supporter of abortion who has been banned from receiving Communion by several clerics due to her stance. After meeting Pope Francis, Pelosi later received Communion during a Papal Mass. While it was not clear if the Pope was aware Pelosi was attending Mass, the decision to greet Pelosi was striking.
In the past, the Pope has accused conservative bishops of politicising Catholic office-holders who oppose abortion personally but support it for others, arguing that “Communion is not a prize for the perfect.” Meanwhile, the promotion of Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego – a progressive whose appointment bypassed conservative archbishops in San Francisco and Los Angeles – to the rank of cardinal, is significant. Bishop McElroy has opposed clerics who want to ban politicians receiving Communion because of their abortion stance. Although the Vatican has not ruled on the issue of Communion and politicians supporting abortion, Canon Law states that people in persistent sin must not be allowed to receive Communion. It also exhorts Catholic office-holders to uphold principles consistent with Church doctrine. For traditionalists, the Pope has taken the wiggle-room afforded by Church teaching and indicated sympathy for the position of supporters of abortion.
When it came to the Court decision, the Pope said: “I have to study it because I don’t really understand (the details of) the ruling 50 years ago and now I can’t say whether it did right or wrong from a judicial point of view. I respect the decisions.” However, on abortion itself, he was clear: “Science today and any book on embryology, the one our medical students study, tells you that 30 days after conception there is DNA and the laying out already of all the organs …. I ask: ‘Is it licit, is it right, to eliminate a human life to resolve a problem?’ It’s a human life – that’s science. The moral question is whether it is right to take a human life to solve a problem. Indeed, is it right to hire a hit man to solve a problem?” Strong words, but when talking about banning politicians who support abortion from receiving Communion, Pope Francis said: “When the Church loses its pastoral nature, when a bishop loses his pastoral nature, it causes a political problem.”
In hoping to put resignation rumours to bed the Pope may well have only fanned the flames. His words on Pope Benedict XVI’s decision spoke volumes, while leaving Catholics in little doubt that Pope Francis does not intend to follow the path of St. Pope John Paul II in continuing through debilitating health. But it was on abortion where traditionalists will be most intrigued and perhaps alarmed. While reiterating the Church’s official line, Pope Francis seemed to scold clergy who take a strong stand against “pro-choice” politicians. In light of the Pelosi meeting, eyebrows will be raised and some suspicions confirmed. If the Pope didn’t take a stand in the culture wars, he certainly seemed to show some sympathy for both sides in the debate.
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