Earlier Sunday, Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who leads the anti-immigrant League party, spoke at an anti-abortion gathering in Verona that has become a preferred forum for hard-right conservatives with strong links to Russia. Asked about Mr. Salvini’s comment that when it came to women, “the real danger is Islam,” Pope Francis shook his head and said coyly, “Italian politics, I don’t understand.”
But the pope spoke more broadly about Europe’s tilt toward populism. Catholics and other people of good will who support such leaders, he said, are influenced by a populism that “plants fear.” He worried that Europe was not heeding the lessons of the last century. “Fear is the beginning of dictatorship,” he said.
He also warned against quickly judging Muslim countries for their relative lack of freedom of religion, arguing that it will evolve as it has in Catholic cultures. Centuries ago, the church supported the death penalty, he noted, something it now finds abhorrent.
But he added, “We, too, have this problem,” arguing that the free conscience of Catholics, including doctors, was often infringed on in liberal countries where they were forced to perform procedures against their beliefs, including he said, euthanasia.
Francis touched on existential problems within the church, which faces eroding trust because of clerical sexual abuse.
On the flight, Francis said that because an appeal is underway he had rejected the resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, France, who has been sentenced to a six-month prison term after being found guilty of covering up sexual abuse.
“I can’t accept it because judicially there is a presumption of innocence,” Francis said. He continued, “We will see what happens,” adding, “perhaps he’s not innocent.”