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Pope Francis’ CBS interview addresses women deacons, war, climate change and hope

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Pope Francis sits down with ‘CBS Evening News’ anchor Norah O’Donnell at the Vatican April 24, 2024, for an in-depth interview aired on 20 May. Photo: OSV/Adam Verdugo, courtesy, 60 minutes, CBS NEWS

By Gina Christian, OSV News

Pope Francis said he is not open to the possibility of ordaining women as deacons, weeks after authorising several Vatican study groups to look into that issue and others as part of the Synod on Synodality—although “women have always had … the function of deaconesses without being deacons,” and that “making space in the church for women does not mean giving them a ministry.”

In addition, Pope Francis said his health is “fine,” and that “it has never occurred” to him to retire, noting that his “only infirmity”—an inflamed knee ligament that has seen him use a walking stick or, more frequently, a wheelchair—is “getting much better.”

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He also said that along with his planned trips this year to the far East and Belgium, there is a “possibility” he may travel to the US to speak at the United Nations about peace.

The pope shared his thoughts during a wide-ranging interview with CBS news anchor Norah O’Donnell, his first sit-down interview with a US broadcast network.

Throughout the exchange, Pope Francis underscored his soft-spoken but energetic responses— delivered in his native Spanish through an interpreter—with emphatic gestures, shifting occasionally in his chair and appearing vibrant despite a bout with bronchitis earlier this year that saw him taken to the hospital for tests.

He met with O’Donnell on 24 April at his residence, Casa Santa Marta. A roughly 13-minute portion of the interview aired May 19 on CBS’ 60 Minutes program, with the balance of the session broadcast in a one-hour primetime special May 20 on the network and its Paramount+ streaming platform.

The pope and O’Donnell were seated beneath a large image of Our Lady Undoer of Knots, a Marian devotion from 18th-century Germany that is a favourite of Pope Francis, who learned of it some 40 years ago from a nun he had met while he was completing his doctoral thesis in that nation.

Along with the papal interview, the full-length CBS special also aired May 20 archival footage as well as supplemental segments without the pope, filmed at Holy Family Parish in Gaza and at the Catholic nonprofit Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, where O’Donnell spoke with El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz about the charity’s work in sheltering migrants amid a crackdown on such efforts by Texas officials. Some of the footage in the Gaza Strip—which did not include O’Donnell—appeared to have been filmed during the parish’s Palm Sunday liturgy.

Over the course of the May 20 broadcast, O’Donnell asked Pope Francis about key issues that have dominated his 11-year papacy: migration, climate change, clerical sexual abuse, the role of women in the church, ministry to persons who identify as LGBTQ+, and outreach to children and youth who have been profoundly impacted by rapidly evolving and increasingly toxic social media platforms.

War, genocide and antisemitism

She also questioned him about the Israel-Hamas war and Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine.

In particular, O’Donnell asked Pope Francis about the children of Gaza ahead of the Catholic Church’s inaugural World Children’s Day May 25-26, an observance instituted by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education.

When O’Donnell, citing the United Nations, said that more than a million in Gaza, mostly children, would face famine on World Children’s Day, Pope Francis replied, “Not just in Gaza. Think of Ukraine.”

He said that many of the Ukrainian children who come to the Vatican “don’t know how to smile…they have forgotten how to smile. And that is very painful.”

Noting “there are now pictures of starving children coming out of Gaza,” O’Donnell then asked the pope for his response to “those that call that a genocide.”

The pope looked down briefly, then up at O’Donnell, and simply repeated the word, “Genocide.”

He added that he phones Holy Family Parish in Gaza “every evening at 7 pm” to check on the “600 people” who have taken shelter in the parish compound.

“It is very tough, very tough,” said Pope Francis. “The food arrives, people rush to get it, and prrrfff,” he said, indicating with an accompanying hand gesture that the aid is rapidly depleted.

“I listen (to them),” he said. “The other day they were happy because they managed to eat some meat. The rest of the time they eat things made of flour. Sometimes they go hungry. There is a lot of suffering.”

O’Donnell asked the pope how to address international division over the Israel-Hamas war, which has sparked “big protests on college campuses and growing antisemitism.”

“All ideology is bad, and antisemitism is an ideology, and it is bad,” said Pope Francis. “Any ‘anti’ is always bad. You can criticize one government or another, the government of Israel, the Palestinian government. You can criticize all you want, but not ‘anti’ a people. Neither anti-Palestinian, nor antisemitic. No.”

Noting that the pope has repeatedly called for a ceasefire, O’Donnell asked, “Can you help negotiate peace?”

The pope sighed and replied, “What I can do is pray. I pray a lot for peace. And also, to suggest, ‘Please, stop. Negotiate.’ A bad deal is always better than an ugly defeat, is it not? … The white flag is for negotiating, not for surrendering, but for negotiating. And wars are resolved through negotiation. Think of the dead.”

O’Donnell asked if the pope had a message for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“Please, warring countries, all of them, stop. Stop the war,” replied Pope Francis. “You must find a way of negotiating for peace. Strive for peace. A negotiated peace is always better than an endless war. War always serves to destroy. Always.”

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marking Europe’s biggest land war since World War II, the pope lamented that “at the Normandy landing—it was the beginning of the liberation of Europe, but 20,000 lay dead on the beach. … The mother says in her heart … ‘I don’t want a hero. I want my son.'”

Migrants, indifference, climate change

O’Donnell then focused on the plight of migrants, especially those at the US-Mexico border, many of whom are “mothers with children who are fleeing violence.”

“The solution is … to open the doors to migration,” said Pope Francis, citing “four things” necessary—enumerated in his 2018 message for World Migrants Day—for a good immigration policy: “for the migrant to be received, assisted, promoted, and integrated.”

When O’Donnell noted that her home state of Texas was allegedly attempting to shutter Annunciation House, the pope said, “That is madness. Sheer madness,” adding that Bishop Seitz, whom he described as “a great bishop,” does “the impossible to help the migrants.”

The special then cut to a CBS interview (in which O’Donnell did not appear) at Annunciation House with Bishop Seitz, who said Texas’ claims that the charity is shielding unauthorised migrants from law enforcement “puts fear into the hearts of anyone who generously gives of their time because of the Christian concern for people who are truly the poorest of the poor among us, people who have no place to go, nothing to eat, no clothes.”

Recalling the pope’s July 2013 visit to Lampedusa—the Italian island to which thousands of migrants have fled, with thousands more perishing while crossing the Mediterranean— O’Donnell asked Pope Francis to speak about “the globalisation of indifference.”

“People wash their hands!” he answered. “There are so many Pontius Pilates on the loose out there … who see what is happening, the wars, the injustice, the crimes … (They say), ‘That’s OK, that’s OK’ and wash their hands. … That is what happens when the heart hardens … and becomes indifferent.

“Please, we have to get our hearts to feel again,” Pope Francis implored. “We cannot remain indifferent in the face of such human dramas. The globalisation of indifference is a very ugly disease. Very ugly.”

Asked by O’Donnell about his fears regarding climate change, the pope said, “Unfortunately, we have gotten to a point of no return. It’s sad, but that’s what it is. … Climate change at this moment is a road to death. … And it is an artificial climate change, no? Something provoked, not the normal climate change, right?”

He said that wealthy nations “in great measure” bear responsibility for the problem—which has seen the Earth’s temperature increase by two degrees—since “they are the ones that have more of an economy and an energy based on fossil fuels that are creating this situation.”

Deniers of climate change are “foolish people” who remain unconvinced “even if you show them the statistics,” due to incomprehension or “vested interest,” the pope said.

Women in the church, surrogacy, blessings

While he firmly rejected the idea that women could be ordained to the permanent diaconate, Pope Francis told O’Donnell that in the life of the church “women are the ones who move changes forward, all sorts of changes.

“They are braver than the men. They know how best to protect life,” he said. “Women are masterful custodians of life.”

The church is itself a mother, and “women in the church are the ones who help foster that motherliness,” said the pope. “Don’t forget that the ones who never abandoned Jesus were the women. The men all fled.”

In a particularly poignant moment in the interview, O’Donnell asked the pope about the church’s rejection of surrogacy, saying she knows women who are cancer survivors for whom the practice has become “the only hope” for having a child.

Pope Francis reaffirmed church teaching on the point, saying that surrogacy has sometimes “become a business, and that is very bad.”

He also said that for infertile women, “the other hope is adoption,” and stressed that “in each case the situation should be carefully and clearly considered, consulting medically and then morally as well.”

The pope commended O’Donnell for her sensitivity toward people that “in some cases (surrogacy) is the only chance,” saying with a smile, “it shows that you feel these things very deeply. Thank you.”

O’Donnell, in turn, said the pope has inspired hope among many “because you have been more open and accepting perhaps than any other previous leaders of the church.”

On ‘Fiducia Supplicans’. the controversial declaration issued by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in December 2023 that includes guidelines on what is calls the “blessings of same-sex couples,” Pope Francis clarified that he didn’t allow blessings of “the union” but of “each person.”

“What I allowed was not to bless the union,” the pope said, correcting O’Donnell on the wording of her question, in which she stated that the pope had “decided to allow Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples.”

“That cannot be done because that is not the sacrament. I cannot. The Lord made it that way,” said Pope Francis, according to the English translation provided in voiceover by CBS. “But to bless each person, yes. The blessing is for everyone. For everyone.”

The May 19 edit of the interview included additional comments by the pope on the point: “To bless a homosexual-type union, however, goes against the given right, against the law of the church. But to bless each person, why not? The blessing is for all. Some people were scandalised by this. But why? Everyone! Everyone!”

The Spanish-language video of the 19 May segment, however, reveals that instead of “given right,” Pope Francis said “natural law,” which, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life.”

Abuse, social communication, and hope

Asked by O’Donnell if the Catholic Church had “done enough” to reform and repent of clerical sexual abuse, Pope Francis said “it must continue to do more” since “the tragedy of the abuses is enormous.”

He also stressed the need to “not only … not permit it but to put in place the conditions so that it does not happen.”

“It cannot be tolerated,” Pope Francis said. “When there is a case of a religious man or woman who abuses, the full force of the law falls upon them. In this there has been a great deal of progress.”

O’Donnell, however, did not ask Pope Francis about Father Marko Rupnik, the Slovenian-born priest who was expelled from the Society of Jesus in June 2023, and who has gained international recognition both for his liturgical art and for the numerous accusations of sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse levelled against him in the course of his career.

Toward the end of the interview, O’Donnell asked the pope about the impact of social media on the world and its children.

While some communication media exhibit “a conscience,” other platforms “alienate young people” by peddling propaganda and gossip, said Pope Francis, stressing that “the media has a serious responsibility.”

“We need to walk beside our teenage kids, we have to be there for them and guide them with intelligence, with love, we have to listen to them,” he said. “Listening to them is very important.”

He warned against developing a “closed heart,” which “hardens and gets sick” while depriving a person of the “great happiness” of “going forward with an open heart” in life.

O’Donnell asked the pope what gave him hope.

“Everything,” Pope Francis said. “You see tragedies, but you also see so many beautiful things … heroic mothers, heroic men, men who have hopes and dreams, women who look to the future. That gives me a lot of hope. People want to live. People forge ahead. And people are fundamentally good. We are all fundamentally good. Yes, there are some rogues and sinners, but the heart itself is good.”

Asked what he hoped his legacy would be, Pope Francis admitted he “never really thought about it,” since “the church is the legacy, the church not only through the pope, but through you … every Christian … everyone.”

“You mean that the church is for everybody?” O’Donnell inquired.

“Yes, for everybody. And in particular for the privileged,” Pope Francis replied. “Do you know who are the privileged in the church? … We, the sinners, are the privileged ones, because Jesus came to call upon us sinners, all of us.”

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