In a new major document addressed to “all Christian young people,” Pope Francis called for a church with “open doors” that can acknowledge past ills and be attentive to women seeking “greater justice and equality.”
The 33,000-word letter released Tuesday by the Vatican showed the pope’s hallmark advocacy for a version of Catholic teaching that is willing to evolve with the times. But the document did little to advocate for concrete steps that would improve the role of women in the church. Nor did it break ground on two other issues critical to young people: the church’s handling of sexual abuse and its teaching on homosexuality.
Without mentioning criticism from traditionalists, who feel the pope has pulled the church away from its firm and unchanging morals, Francis wrote that a church always on the defensive stops listening to others, “leaves no room for questions” and “turns into a museum.”
“How, then, will she be able to respond to the dreams of young people?” Francis wrote in the so-called apostolic exhortation, entitled “Christ is Alive.”
The pope’s document comes at a time when young people across the West are abandoning organized religion, including the scandal-hit Catholic faith. Bishops met at the Vatican last October for a meeting on the topic of youth in the church, and the pontiff’s document was a follow-up to that meeting. The Vatican in February held a separate meeting to address the sexual abuse of minors, and though the problem has thrown the Catholic Church into crisis, it was not a primary focus of Francis’s latest document.
Instead, the pope devoted several paragraphs to the clerical abuse issue, mostly reiterating words from previous papal speeches or from a church document produced after the bishops meeting in October. Francis, in his latest encyclical, wrote that anger toward the church is “justified,” and he thanked those who “had the courage to report the evil they experienced.”
He also offered a reminder that “those who committed these horrible crimes are not the majority of priests.” Though Francis has previously acknowledged the power gap between abusers and victims, the pontiff wrote that “if you see a priest at risk, because he has lost the joy of his ministry, or seeks affective compensation, or is taking the wrong path, remind him of his commitment to God and his people, remind him of the Gospel and urge him to hold to his course.”
“In this way,” Francis wrote, “you will contribute greatly to something fundamental: preventing these atrocities from being repeated.”
Francesco Zanardi, an Italian survivor of clergy sex abuse and president of the Abuse Network, said that the pope’s guidance to young people – asking them to help wayward priests – went against “every prevention protocol” and indicated that Francis wants abuse to be handled internally.
“Prevention means reporting and making it public,” Zanardi said. “You can’t just remind [a priest] of his Christian values. What will a pedophile think? ‘Wow, I got lucky.’”
Monsignor Fabio Fabene, a Vatican official, defended Francis at Tuesday’s press conference and said pope’s guidance was an “act of trust in the young.”
“I find it very bold and prophetic that the Pope should entrust the young with this mission, this task, this closeness to those priests who find themselves in difficulty about their mission, their vocation,” Fabene said.
Francis has released several previous exhortations, teaching pronouncements that have touched on the subjects of evangelism, holiness and family. A 2016 exhortation, entitled Amoris Laetitia, caused a firestorm of controversy among church traditionalists, who said that Francis was advocating for a more open stance on divorced or remarried Catholics to receive holy communion.
In a news conference Tuesday, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who helped organize last October’s gathering of bishops, said Francis has produced a “Magna Carta” on the topic of youth in the church.
“In these words we recognize a cardinal principle of Pope Francis’s teachings, already present in Amoris Laetitia: the principle of inclusive pastoral care – that is, capable of welcoming everyone, overcoming any form of elitism,” Baldisseri said.
Francis’s latest document said the church should look back on its history and “acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence.” But the document was not as drastic as it could have been, as Francis – in a seeming reference to the call for female priests – said that the church could support women’s rights “while not agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose.”
Francis mentioned church teaching on sexuality only tangentially, borrowing some of his language from a church document released last October after the youth meeting. The pope wrote that “sexual morality” tends to be a source of “incomprehension and alienation from the Church, inasmuch as she is viewed as a place of judgment and condemnation.”
“Young people also express ‘an explicit desire to discuss questions concerning the difference between male and female identity, reciprocity between men and women, and homosexuality,’” the pope wrote.
The encyclical, divided into nine chapters, offered a wide spectrum of commentary, at turns theological and colloquial, and urged young people to fight apathy, find Christian solutions to global problems and treat migrants with empathy. Francis cautioned that the digital world can lead people to feel lonely and “rootless.” He mentioned cyberbullying, pornography, gambling and violence spreading through social media.
“Don’t confuse happiness with an armchair, or live your life behind a screen,” Francis wrote.
“Take risks, even if it means making mistakes. Don’t go through life anesthetized or approach the world like tourists. Make a ruckus! Cast out the fears that paralyze you, so that you don’t become young mummies. Live!”
Washington Post writer Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.