Just days before Pope Francis arrives in America, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has underscored that the Holy Father speaks as a pastor of souls, not as a politician or economist.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with ZENIT this week, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, a native of Pennsylvania who was appointed Bishop of Louisville, Kentucky, by Pope Benedict, said Pope Francis is not coming to the United States to teach economic theory, but to very firmly and strongly reaffirm the tradition of our Catholic social teaching and to celebrate God’s plan for marriage and the family.
Among the themes explored in this interview are Pope Francis’ view of Americans, secularism and a throwaway culture, as well as his pastoral approach and how it’s being interpreted, or misinterpreted. Also, in the wake of his recently-released encyclical on the environment ‘Laudato Si’, the archbishop speaks to ZENIT on the Pontiff’s stance on “unbridled capitalism” and business.
The prelate, who served as a social worker as well as parish priest in Lehigh Valley, PA, also discusses whether he believes political parties will politicize the Pontiff’s message and predicts themes he believes Francis will touch on, relevant to the family and religious freedom.
ZENIT: Archbishop Kurtz, as president of the US bishops, could you please speak a bit about your hopes and expectations for Pope Francis’ visit to the United States?
Archbishop Kurtz: The Holy Father is coming as a pastor and a prophet. So we are very eager to welcome him. He is coming as a good pastor to be present with us. On the virtual tour that the Holy Father had about two weeks ago and was broadcast [ABC’s 20/20: ‘Pope Francis and the People‘ aired on Sept.4] — and you probably have seen it — he has a message. Pope Francis says he brings a message of love, and says: ‘I love you. ‘ And these are the words of a pastor. So I think it’s very important that he comes as a pastor and as a prophet. So, in a sense, he seeks to uncover for us God’s plan and God’s will in our lives. Given this, I think it’s very important that we make room as a nation, especially as a Church, to hear his full message and to welcome and receive him well. It is a very important visit he is going to make.
ZENIT: So this outpouring of support throughout the US, especially in the cities where he will be, does this surprise you? Or how do you believe Pope Francis has really touched so many American hearts?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well, first of all, our Holy Father is genuinely himself. He sees the person in front of him first and gives his full attention to that person. I think he sees the person with the eyes of Jesus. I think that was made so evident in the 45-minutes of the town meetings on ABC’s 20/20. Now, I think that brings out the best in people. And if we were to look back, St. John Paul II was quite popular when he came and Benedict was popular and of course Pope Francis will be popular. And, like any one, [these Popes] would say ‘Oh gee, we point to the person of Jesus Christ.’ I told one newspaper… [at] the Religious News Association meeting […] I was asked a question at the panel. They asked me what do you think makes Pope Francis uncomfortable. I think he is uncomfortable when all the attention is on him, rather than to the person of Jesus Christ. And over and over again, in his homilies, in his addresses to the people, he points people to Christ. And I think that genuineness comes through and touches hearts of people.
ZENIT: What do you think the Holy Father thinks of Americans, in general? Obviously, he realizes we are not the same. There are differences from place to place, family to family, there are distinctions…But do you believe that the Holy Father has an overall impression going into this visit to the United States?
Archbishop Kurtz: I do. I believe the Holy Father looks at people in the United States as being very blessed, as having many resources and many opportunities to serve and I believe he wants to call on us to be generous and be generous with others. And I would say, correctly, he’s aware that the arm of secularism has penetrated the hearts of some of us, in some ways all of us, in what we might call a “throwaway culture” and a consumerism in which we are tempted to put things in front of people. And that is not a new temptation. That was the temptation of Jesus when he was led into the desert in the beginning of his public ministry as we know from the Gospels. The Holy Father knew temptation but I think our Holy Father is aware of the blessings and the gifts that so many people in the United States have, and will call us to an increased generosity. And I for one, think that is a beautiful thing.
And I also believe the Holy Father is very eager to learn more about the United States. He has repeatedly said this … I believe he is interested in understanding the richness that involves the various cultures and individuals who make up the United States of America. The Holy Father’s virtual participation in the three-city tour on the 20/20 special is an indication of his desire to meet, understand, to learn, and most of all to connect with people in love.
ZENIT: Do you believe he’ll connect primarily in English or Spanish?
Archbishop Kurtz: When asked questions regarding which language, I noted at how amazed I was with how good his English actually is. And in fact, I was really pleasantly surprised by the way in which he instinctively spoke to that young woman in English [In the 20/20 special, when the Pope virtually spoke to the audience in Chicago, he told a young woman who, her whole life, has battled a difficult skin condition and found her peace and comfort in song, to not be afraid, but to be courageous. He asked her in English to sing a song for him]. He spoke to her so tenderly.
I am also aware from my meetings with the Holy Father that when he wants to make a point and wants to communicate in a very nuanced situation, he will be most comfortable in Spanish or Italian. I believe some of his speeches will be in Spanish and English. And then when he really wishes to speak very precisely, he will speak in Spanish.
ZENIT: Due to some strong statements condemning certain abuses in the capitalistic or political system in his recently-released encyclical on the environment Laudato Si’, some believe Pope Francis is anti-capitalist or anti-business. From your point of view as president of the US bishops’ conference, do you believe the Pope is anti-capitalist? Do you believe the Holy Father approves of capitalism?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well, first of all, I’ll begin by saying that the Holy Father is speaking as a pastor of souls, not as a politician or economist. And this is very important. In doing so, he does us a great service in pointing out the way that an unbridled capitalism can lead people to forget the effects that a system has on the person, especially the forgotten person, the poor person. So this is something that needs to be said and I am very grateful for his willingness to do it. He comes as a pastor of souls.
He is not coming to teach economic theory, and he is himself very firmly and very strongly within the continuity and tradition of our Catholic social teaching. And in doing so, he is going to speak for the common good. And the common good will always be judged on the way in which the weakest person is treated.
ZENIT: Pope Francis embraces a pastoral, inclusive approach. However, some misinterpret this to mean that certain things are changing or are not in continuity with his predecessors. Do you think this visit will help clarify where the Holy Father stands and how what he said and does is in accordance with Church doctrine?
Archbishop Kurtz: Let me answer it in this way, Deborah. I’ve mentioned it this way other times. The media is our friend. The media allows people to hear the message of our Holy Father in far greater numbers than we could ever imagine. So I am grateful for the media representation. It’s very important in saying that, that the media coverage leaves room for the full message of the Holy Father.
If there’s a danger, it’s that his message would be co-opted, interpreted in a very narrow political framework. So it’s very, very important that the full message is heard. And it puts a burden on me and on all the faithful Catholics and people of good will to become real students. It is tempting for us in our hectic lives to just read headlines or to just listen to a little blurb and not [to scrutinize it any further.] So I do think we have opportunities, really, to become well-educated and to receive the whole message, which I really believe is the other half of the coin.
ZENIT: Do you worry that politicians or political parties will try to politicize the visit?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well, I would say this. I had the opportunity last January to visit the leadership in Congress and I saw a very, very positive desire to receive the Holy Father on both sides of the aisle, as they say in Congress. So I am optimistic the people will be open to the full message. Naturally, there will likely be some sub-tendencies which will try to make whatever is said into a sport for a particular priority that one has. But I think, in general, there is a desire to warmly receive the Holy Father and to allow his full message to go forward.
And interviews, like the one you are giving, are one more example that will allow that to take place.
ZENIT: The news came out this week that Pope Francis has reformed the annulment process, significantly streamlining its required procedures. Would you comment on this and the impact of this for American faithful?
Archbishop Kurtz: The first thing I would say is to go back to the Holy Father’s own words in the motu proprio. He said his desire is to be steadfast in Church teaching and in the beautiful commitment we all have in the insolubility of marriage. And his focus is on how do we remove barriers for people who are divorced and have entered into a second marriage so that they may be touched by the grace and love of Christ and be full participants in the life of the Church. And certainly that is something that any good pastor of souls is going to say, “Alleluia.” We want that to happen. So I welcome it.
I participated in the synod last October, as you know. One of the great consensus was the synod delegates wanting to find ways to streamline the process for annulments in a way that does not in any way compromise the commitment to the insolubility to marriage and remove obstacles that cause, let’s say, undue delay. So my hope would be that these steps that come forward, that will be studied of course, will really serve our people well. And I am looking forward to that.
ZENIT: Anything else you would like to add? Anything you feel should be heard?
Archbishop Kurtz: I think, Deborah, you’ve given me a chance to say it. I suppose the one or two things we didn’t speak about is that the Holy Father is coming primarily because of the invitation to be part of the World Meeting of Families. God’s plan for marriage and the family will be very much a part of his message, I believe. We know that our society is only as strong as its weakest family. And so our Holy Father will call on us to walk with families. And then secondly, I believe the Holy Father will speak about the great gift of freedom of religion within our nation, a heritage which is really freedom—not for special privilege– but rather a freedom that we might serve and witness publicly through our faith.