World News

Pope Criticized Family Separations Before Policy’s Reversal

Posted June 20, 2018 5:16 p.m. EDT
Updated June 20, 2018 5:18 p.m. EDT

ROME — Before President Donald Trump’s about-face on Wednesday, Pope Francis criticized the administration’s separation of migrant children from their parents, saying in an interview earlier this week that “populism is not the solution” to a migration crisis that is transforming global politics.

In a rare sit-down interview, Francis told Reuters that “I am on the side” of the United States’ Catholic bishops’ conference, which called taking children from their parents “immoral” and “contrary to our Catholic values.”

In the face of mounting outrage, Trump had been sticking to a “zero-tolerance” policy intended to deter illegal immigration by prosecuting all adults apprehended crossing the U.S. border and putting their children in separate government-run shelters, including behind chain-link cage fencing.

By some counts, the government has separated nearly 2,000 children from their families in the past six weeks. But on Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order to prevent children from being taken from their parents.

Francis has been a consistent, and increasingly lonely, advocate for migrants in a decreasingly tolerant globe. He told Reuters that populists capitalizing on the migration crisis to rise to power were “creating psychosis” on the issue.

The pope argued that European countries with dwindling populations were entering what he called “a great demographic winter.” Without migrants, he said, Europe “will become empty.”

Italy recently elected a populist government, made of two parties that campaigned against migration. The country’s powerful interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who is also the leader of a far-right party, has led a crackdown on migrant arrivals. This month, he refused safe harbor to an aid ship carrying more than 600 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

“I believe that you cannot reject people who arrive,” the pope said in the interview. “You have to receive them, help them, look after them, accompany them and then see where to put them, but throughout all of Europe.”

Asked to reflect on his five years as pope, Francis cast off the “nasty things” said about him by a small but vocal group of conservative cardinals led by Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, an American who has met repeatedly with Salvini.

They argue that Francis is sowing confusion and leading the church astray with his inclusive interpretation of the gospel. Francis told Reuters that their public campaigning against him was “not ecclesial, but we all make mistakes” and added that he was praying for them.

The pope seems far from chastened by their resistance.

Just this week, the Vatican adopted for the first time the term “LGBT” because, as Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri explained at a news conference, it wanted to use the language of young people.

“We don’t want to be closed in on ourselves,” he said.

In the interview with Reuters, conducted Sunday but published Wednesday, Francis added that he also wanted to install more women in high-ranking positions in the Vatican bureaucracy because they resolved conflicts better. He added, however, that he did not want this to lead to “masculinism in a skirt.”

He also disappointed conservatives and some of his critics in the Roman Curia, the body that governs the Vatican, by saying he had no intention of retiring.

“Right now, I am not even thinking about it,” he said.

He said he felt in good health, apart from some leg pain associated with a back condition.

The pope also said that he remained optimistic about striking a historic deal with China over the appointment of bishops there, and that he could accept the resignation of more Chilean bishops following a clerical sex abuse scandal that threatened the reputation of his pontificate.

Francis is loath to directly criticize world leaders, especially the U.S. president, after once suggesting while Trump was a candidate that his enthusiasm for wall building rendered him “not Christian.”

But asked directly about Trump’s decision last year to restrict U.S. travel to Cuba, reversing a previous policy, Francis lamented that the Obama administration’s deal on the issue, which he had helped to broker, “was a good step forward.”

During Trump’s trip to the Vatican last year, Francis presented him with a copy of his encyclical on preserving the environment, and the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, urged the president not to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord.

Trump nevertheless exited the agreement, and Francis said in the interview Sunday that the decision had caused him “a bit of pain, because the future of humanity is at stake.”