WASHINGTON, DC – In a wide-ranging interview with WND, Fr. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, assessed the impact Pope Francis has had on the Roman Catholic Church.

In the interview, transcribed below, he predicted the Synod of Bishops that Pope Francis has convened on the family, to be held in the Vatican Oct. 5-19, could establish new guidelines for Catholics seeking to obtain marriage annulments but would not alter any doctrine on marriage.

In the course of the interview, Sirico expressed concern for the pope’s safety and offered him advice on dealing with the largely secular establishment media.

The Acton Institute is named after the English historian Lord John Acton (1834-1902), who is best known for his famous remark, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Father Robert Sirico

Father Robert Sirico

Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute in 1990 to help leaders understand the role of virtue in economics. With an ecumenical scope, it educates religious leaders of all denominations as well as business executives, entrepreneurs, university professors and economics researchers.

Sirico’s writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters have been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the London Financial Times, the Washington Times, the Detroit News and the National Review. He has provided commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR and the CBS News show “60 Minutes,” among others.

WND: Do you anticipate Pope Francis will attempt to change Catholic doctrinal teachings in any fundamental way, especially given the challenges today being launched in the United States by the LGBT community’s push for same-sex marriage?

Fr. Sirico: Pope Francis has made clear he is a man of the church. He believes in the Catechism, and that’s not going to change. What confuses people is that Pope Francis is very gentle and loving, especially toward people who are caught in difficult situations. This creates a situation of doubt in the minds of some people who interpret his gentleness as a sign of weakness.

I think in the Holy Father gentleness is no more a sign of moral weakness than it was when Jesus prevented the woman who was caught in the act of adultery from getting stoned. In the same way, at the end of the day, Pope Francis will be very loving and helpful to people caught in difficult marriages or divorce situations, but I believe he will say finally, “Go and sin no more.”

WND: Do you expect any fundamental redefinition of marriage to come out of the Synod on the Family in October?

Fr. Sirico: I suspect that if they are going to do anything at this Synod, they may want to modify some of the canonical requirements for an annulment. This wouldn’t change the doctrine of the church. It would change the procedure of getting an annulment. I expect the Bishops will make it easier to obtain annulments in marriages that are clearly not valid sacramental marriages in the eyes of the Church.

I know in my own pastoral work, there are many people who come in to see me that have had a Catholic ceremony, but were never really married in terms of what the church intends. Perhaps when they were preparing to get married, their parish priests did not explain to them that if you don’t intend to have children, you can not be married in the church. Those marriages could and should be dissolved because they are not real Catholic marriages. There are a lot of situations like that that have to be clarified.

If in fact two Catholics are validly married, and subsequently they divorce and remarry, they are considered to be living in a sinful state. There are some circumstances in my pastoral experience, however, where a person has divorced and they may have remarried, but now they have grown old with the second marriage partner. If two people in such a situation are no longer in a sexual relationship with the second marriage partner, then in those circumstances and in the privacy of the confessional, the priest can admit them to the sacraments. Usually, this is not done in a parish where it is generally known the two people did not marry in the church. These two people may have raised a family together, and even if they are currently living together, they are living effectively as brother and sister. Such situations do not compromise the doctrine of the church on the sanctity of marriage.

WND: In the United States, traditional families are in trouble today. What is Pope Francis going to do to restore traditional families?

Fr. Sirico:The Vatican published the outline, or schema, of topics the Synod is going to be discussing in June. This is very solid. This will be the working document, the game plan for what the Synod will be doing.

One of the first things that has to be done – and it’s a long-term project that requires not only the participation but the enthusiastic participation of parishes and priests, as well as from leaders in the Catholic community – involves making sure the young people are prepared for what the church considers a valid marriage to involve.

This starts not just with the marriage ceremony but with the marriage preparation that in some cases may begin as early as six months before the marriage. It also involves restoring a proper understanding of what courtship is – the beauty of courtship, and the necessary formation that goes on during courtship of forming a real partnership of the two people involved.

We must reinforce the importance of having chaste courtships so you can have chaste marriages. The problem of the family goes way back to the 1930s when the pill was introduced and people began divorcing from their consciousness the relationship between marriage and children, in addition to love.

WND: Switching gears to economics, what objectives are Pope Francis pursuing in reforming the Vatican Bank? :

Fr. Sirico: The Vatican Bank is part of a whole series of institutional changes Pope Francis is making. It is important for people to understand that the Vatican Bank is not primarily the holder of all the Vatican’s money. The money that is in the Vatican Bank isn’t necessarily the property of the Holy See. A lot of missionary orders or dioceses, especially in troubled parts of the world where they have unstable financial systems, will deposit their money in the Vatican Bank so they can have access to it safely. The Vatican Bank was very useful before the fall of communism in Russia to transfer money to Solidarity as it resisted Polish communism.

Unfortunately, the Vatican Bank has been run like a bureaucratic fiefdom by any number of people who have been charge there. Anyone who knows anything about the workings of the Vatican understands the Vatican suffers from two great handicaps. First, the Vatican is in the middle of Italy where it’s always your cousin Luigi who can do a job cheaper and better as long as the job is not sent out for competitive bids. The second problem is the Vatican Bank is a bureaucracy and various unprofessional practices become a habit – indeed a culture. The Vatican Bank is in need of cleanup and transparency, and this is what Pope Francis is setting about to do.

What gives me confidence these changes are going to be authentic is that Pope Francis has called Cardinal Pell from the See of Sydney in Australia to be his chief economic adviser in the Vatican. Next to the pope and the secretary of state, these are the highest positions in the Vatican. Pell has a very clear understanding of economics.

Then, in addition to that, as I understand it, the eight cardinals who have been advising Pope Francis on the Vatican Bank came to Rome in July to take a hard look at the structuring of the Vatican curia. Those with positions of authority in the Vatican curia are like cabinet ministers, responsible for getting the work of the pope done in the various offices or departments in the Vatican. Pope Francis wants the Vatican curia to work together more than they have done in the past, eliminating the separate power hubs the curia have relied upon for some time.

WND: Pope Francis has really created a new tone of excitement around the world. What is your assessment of Pope Francis’ leadership?

Fr. Sirico: The first thing that comes to mind is that I find alarming that Pope Francis may not take seriously enough his own physical security. I understand Pope Francis has given his life to the church. But this is not only about him. Conclaves to select a new pope are disruptive to the church. One hopes Pope Francis will take the advice of his security team.

Then, I am also concerned that Pope Francis speaks off the cuff when he ought to realize it is important to be more concise and exact. Pope Francis needs to realize that every word he utters is going to be scrutinized around the world.

A good example involved the recent press reports that Pope Francis had excommunicated the Mafia. But that is not what Pope Francis said. What he said was the Mafia had excommunicated itself. It sounded like Pope Francis was making a formal announcement on the Mafia, but if you see the video of the audience where this occurred, it didn’t happen that way. Pope Francis was reading from the text. Then he looks up and he says spontaneously, as if he were addressing the Mafia in person, “You have excommunicated yourself from the church. You’re not part of the church. If you believe all of this stuff, you’re not part of the church.” Then he goes back to reading his text. That’s what the mainstream media around the world interpreted as if it were a major pronouncement.

It’s true Pope Francis’ spontaneity is very becoming, but I’m worried Pope Francis needs to be more careful.

WND: How would you define your position in the church and the Vatican?

I have no position in Vatican. I am the pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But I also run an ecumenical think-tank, Acton Institute. It’s not a Catholic organization, and it has no standing in the church. More than half of our staff are Protestants. To the extent we have gotten the ears of persons in the Vatican and had the privilege of advising the Holy See – I advised the Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Nguyen Van Thuan on the earlier drafts of the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine – it’s simply because of the quality of the research and the arguments we put forth. We hold conferences for seminarians and bishops – people of all denominations.

WND: What about Obamacare and Hobby Lobby and the forcing of the church to offer insurance that would provide for contraceptive services and abortions.

There are two things at play here.

The first is Obamacare itself, the wholesale redirecting of the health-care system in this country to put it under the government’s control in a way that it has never existed previously. I have a problem with this, because I don’t think that even mild socialized medicine makes either for either good medicine or good prices. We already have a problem in that government involvement in the health-care system obfuscates the real costs, making it more difficult for people to know what the costs of various health-care services are. Today you can ask a doctor what is the price of this or that medical procedure and the doctor doesn’t even know. Interestingly enough the Catholic Bishops Conference is in favor of this, and I’m against it. My problem is that it intrudes into peoples’ lives and that brings me to the second thing.

The evidence that it intrudes on peoples’ lives is seen in that now the president of the United States thinks that he can mandate our institutions to provide insurance that violates our moral conscience, in this case abortions and contraception. This is not just bad economics, which I think the whole health-care reform is, it is also an attack on religious liberty. So, to the extent that we can’t control our property anymore, we are relegated to the freedom of worship rather than the freedom of religion. This is a very dangerous precedent that is being set, and I think the Catholic Bishops on this score are absolutely right to be leading the church against it.

Hobby Lobby is a different thing because it is a case of two private businesses where the owners of the businesses have the right to, in effect, create the culture they believe in within their businesses. The Obama administration is saying no. If we don’t have permission to practice our religion, not just to worship privately, but freedom of religion, we’ve changed a fundamental aspect of the meaning of America.

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