On the Pope’s remarks while returning from Armenia

“I don’t accuse. I ask questions. It’s curious. They looked at the war, at so any things…but not the people…and I don’t know if it’s true, but I would like to know if it’s true that when Hitler persecuted the Jews, one of the words, of what he may have said was, ‘Well, who remembers today the Armenians (Armenian killings by Turks, 1917-1919), let’s do the same with the Jews.’ I don’t know if it’s true, maybe it’s hearsay, but I’ve heard this said. Historians, search and see if it’s true, I think I answered. But I never said this word (genocide) with an offensive intent, if not objectively.”

— Pope Francis, Comment, Return Flight from Armenia, June 26, 2016.

I.

By now we are used to interviews on papal return flights yielding many things of interest. Most people are not quite sure where Armenia is, but I suppose most Armenians would not know where El Paso or Mineola is either. The first questions from Armenian reporters had to do with the relation of the Armenian Church to the Catholic Church. Armenia is said to be the first nation that was “officially” Christian. Those were the days when it was alright for nations to be Christian—none of this separation of Church and State business. “It was the first Christian nation,” Francis said, “because the Lord blessed it, because it had saints, it had bishop saints, martyrs….”

Some time was devoted to a question of a French journalist about the Pope using and not using the word “genocide” of the slaughter of more than a million Armenians during World War I by the Turks. It is actually against the Turkish constitution to say that this genocide happened. So if someone such as a pope uses it, it might cause international incidents. In fact, Pope Francis had used the term earlier, but he evidently dropped it from his prepared speeches. Yet, once in Armenia he did use it again. When asked about it, he simply said that this is the word he knew to describe it. He had talked to a lawyer who told him that the word “extermination” did not have the legal consequences of “genocide”, which implied the right of reparations. Francis said that he just wanted to use the objective word.

Referring to his experience with Armenians in Argentina, the Pope said that he was used to saying that there were three major genocides—in Armenia, in Germany, and in Russia. There were smaller genocides also. Francis mentions one going on in Africa, though whether he meant Sudan or Nigeria is not clear. In any case, he evidently does not consider what is happening to Christians in the Middle East to merit that title of genocide; at least he does not specifically mention it here.

A French lady asked the Pope about the hassle that Monsignor Georg Gaenswein brought up with his theory that the papacy was divided with two popes. Francis laughed and recalled that there were once three popes. (1378-1417). Basically, Francis said that he followed Benedict on this who said that he was not Pope but Pope Emeritus. Case closed. Whether it was a good idea for Benedict to have resigned rather than to die in office can still be debated. If Francis were to step down tomorrow, we would have two popes emeriti and one in the See of Peter. Francis points out that many bishops resign to live out their years out of office, so why not the pope? Health issues can make this a continuing issue.

Edward Pentin from the National Catholic Register asked what the Pope thought of the British exit from the European Union. The Pope’s answer was a masterpiece of agreeing with all sides and criticizing no one. He said frankly that he does not know what to make of it all. He has not studied the issue. Francis was recently given the Charlemagne Prize by the European Union as a symbol of his support. The Pope said nothing of the anti-Christian, anti-life ethos of much of the bureaucracy of the European Union.  Brussels is not really a nation but a bureaucracy effectively obliged to no electorate on the continent. As Pierre Manent often says, Europe is a continent of nations, not one nation. To make it one nation is to destroy what it is in its heritage and culture.

To give some flavor of Pope Francis’ way of dealing with the question of European unity after Brexit, let me cite the following lines:

For me, unity is always better than conflict, but there are different ways of unity…and even fraternity, and here comes the European Union; fraternity is better than animosity and distance. Fraternity is better and bridges are better than walls. One must reflect on all this. It is true: a country…I am in Europe, but…I want to have certain things that are mine from my culture and the step that…and here I come to the Charlemagne Prize, which is given by the European Union to discover the strength that it had from its roots. It is a step of creativity, and also of “healthy disunity”, to give more independence, more liberty to countries of the Union, to think of another form of Union, to be creative. (Emphasis added; see my essay “On Doors, Windows, Bridges, Fences, and Walls”)

In these remarks, one notes that there is no mention of any need of defense, potential enemies, or present invasion, and the need to prepare for them. Also, the phrase that “fraternity is better than animosity” is mindful of the principles the Pope seems to have derived from the Argentine bishop, Victor Emanuel Fernandez.

II.

A German reporter asked of the Pope’s upcoming visit to Lund and the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s reformation. The Pope is very pleased with the previously agreed on agreement on justification, one of the principal issues of the Reformation, now apparently agreed on by all. Several basic issues remain, but the Pope thinks working on commonly agreed projects of charity and poverty will help. When asked about when Christian unity will happen, the Pope humorously responded probably after the Lord comes.

A lady from Le Monde in Paris wanted to know about the deaconesses. The Pope’s answer was that we will study the matter. When asked what this means, he responded that the Argentines say that when you do not want to get something done, appoint a committee, which is what he is doing. He cautioned about thinking that his recommendation for study meant anything more than that, as there was a previous study under John Paul II. Francis continued: “They said: ‘The Church has opened the door to deaconesses.’ Really? I am a bit angry because this is not telling the truth of things… I spoke with the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and he told me, ‘Look, there is a study which the International Theological Commission had made in 1980.’ And I asked the president to please make me a list.” That is, a list of names for another commission. The Pope sounded like he wanted to side-track the deaconess issue for now.

Finally there is the much publicized response to a CNS correspondent that the Church, following a speech of Reinhold Cardinal Marx in Dublin that the Church ought to apologize to the gays for all the hurt religion has caused them. The Pope’s basic line is that homosexuals should be treated kindly and accompanied in their spiritual journey. It’s in the Catechism. He admits that “certain (gay) manifestations are a bit too offensive for others.” The “problem”, as the Pope sees it, is “that a person has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge?” It is not clear just how many, if any, in the vast homosexual community have these conditions. Nor is there any indication of whether there is a way out, whether this is a natural condition or a chosen habit.

The Pope added: “There are traditions in some countries in some cultures that have a different mentality on the problem.” This observation sounds like historicism, that morality is not and cannot be universal but relative to the place or time. Aristotle in a famous passage remarked that the German tribes had a habit of stealing and did not think it was wrong. The question was whether we should leave them in their ignorance or teach them the truth about stealing or, in this case, the difficulties, personal and social, connected with a homosexual life.

On the question of whether the Church should ask forgiveness for its past treatment, it is not entirely clear what was the fault. From St. Paul himself, this sort of life has been seen as a problem, not just another way to live. Surely the fault for which we must apologize is not what Scripture and reason teach? Today homosexual life is considered a “right”. Everyone else must legally admit that nothing is wrong with it. But if there is something objectively wrong with it, it is not a help to those with the problem to be told that nothing is wrong with them. If everyone apologizes for thinking that there might be something not in their own temporal or ultimate interest, no one will have cause to reexamine his life. The Pope’s pleas for understanding of such a way of life are but normal pastoral practice. The more basic question is not about those trying their best not to live a disordered life (the ones the Pope designated), but those, no doubt in practice the great majority, who want actively to live in this culture as if nothing is wrong. It is the old question of what we should tell a sick man. Do we tell him the truth or do we lie to him? Both can be done delicately.

The Pope then goes on to give an astonishing list of past ills that we must forgive. It was John Paul II who began this notion of forgiving in the present something in the past that was not the deed of those asking for forgiveness. This is not a totally flawed idea, I suppose. But it risks confusing the very nature of forgiveness of actual sins of one’s own and not those of someone else, over which we really have no control.

Here are the things for which we should forgivness, besides offenses to the gays: 1) “the poor”, 2) “women”, 3) “children who ae exploited for labor”, 4) blessed military weapons, 5) “for not behaving many times”. This is quite a list. Though related, none of the Ten Commandments make this list. One also might wonder if weapons used in defending, say, Europe from the Muslims at Tours, Christians in Sudan, or those used during World War II needed apologies or blessings. The Pope’s view of the three genocides would seem to indicate that he realized that the Turks, Germans, and Soviets needed to be stopped. He has said the same of the need to defend Christians in the Near East. I presume we need not yet forgive the active abortionist and his industry for the rather unpleasant things we have said about them. But, as I say, abstract forgivieness of the many sins of others in the past or present is tricky business.

At the end of the press conference, Father Lombardi, the Papal Press Secretary, said to the Pope: “I’m allowing myself to pose your Holiness a final question and then we’ll leave you in peace.” To this, an attentive Pope Francis replied: “Don’t put me in difficulty.” And that seems a pretty good way to end a conference, with a sentiment we can hope is also the result of our reading the various remarks, that they not put any of us—Pope, correspondents, or readers—in difficulty.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.