Free-wheeling pope raises issues but skimps on detail

Free-wheeling pope raises issues but skimps on detail
Pope Francis talks during a meeting at the Church of Gethsemane in Jerusalem May 26, 2014.

VATICAN CITY - From the possibility of his own resignation to the issue of celibacy for priests, Pope Francis raised key issues in a free-wheeling chat with reporters that raised questions but was light on concrete details.

The informal press conference took place late on Monday on the return flight from the pope's tour of the Middle East and included discussion of the status for re-married divorcees who have been marginalised in the Catholic Church.

But Vatican experts this week said that for all the Argentine pontiff's openness on previously taboo topics, the conversation showed pragmatism and prudence above all.

Jean Mercier from the French weekly La Vie said his impression was the pope was being "quite cunning".

"He is showing a wider openness, unlike the more dogmatic tone set by John Paul II or Benedict XVI," he said.

But on issues like whether priests can marry and whether divorcees should be allowed to take Holy Communion, Mercier said the 77-year-old remained "vague".

"It suits him not to go too much into detail. He knows that that would annoy people," he said.

Andrea Tornielli, an expert from the website Vatican Insider, said that on priestly celibacy the pope was only raising "the possibility of discussing it".

"He implies that this is not expected imminently," he said.

Zero tolerance

Francis said celibacy was "not a dogma of faith" and pointed out that there were married priests in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Coptic Catholic churches, which fall under Vatican jurisdiction.

"It is a rule for life that I appreciate a lot and I think it is a gift for the Church. Since it is not a dogma of faith, the door is always open but we are not talking about it now as the order of the day," he said.

Asked about the resignation of his predecessor Benedict XVI, who last year became the first pope to step down since the Middle Ages, Francis gave an equally startling answer.

Benedict XVI "opened a door, the door of the popes emeritus. Only God knows if there will be more but that door is open," he said, using the official title given to the former pontiff since his historic resignation.

"I think a bishop of Rome, a pope, should ask himself the same questions as Benedict XVI if he feels his strengths failing him because we now live a long time," he said.

Francis also returned to the issue of child sex crimes committed by priests, vowing there would be "zero tolerance" and "no privileges" for senior clergymen.

Abuse is "like a satanic mass", Francis said.

"You are supposed to lead a child to saintliness and instead you lead them into a problem that will last their whole life," he said, announcing that he would hold a special mass with victims in the Vatican next week.

In passing, he confirmed that the Vatican was looking into a financial scandal that could involve the powerful Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was Secretary of State and head of a committee overseeing the Vatican bank.

Tornielli said his reference to that and other Vatican financial scandals was a "clear signal" of reformist intent and, reading between the lines, he pointed out that Francis had not defended Bertone from the accusation of shadiness.

The pope concluded: "Maybe it's true but at the moment the problem is not definite, it is being examined. We have to be fair right?"

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