In a wide-ranging conversation with Jesuits in Portugal during his visit to Lisbon earlier this month for World Youth Day, Pope Francis touched on several hot-button topics, including criticism of his papacy among US Catholics, outreach to the LGBTQ+ community, and problems of chastity among clergy.

In a private Aug. 5 meeting with Jesuits during his visit to Portugal, Francis spoke to the roughly 130 Jesuits and answered several questions, including one from a Jesuit named Francisco who said he had spent a year on sabbatical in the United States and was troubled by the number of people, including bishops, who were critical of Francis’s papacy.

In his response, Francis said, “You have seen that in the United States the situation is not easy: There is a very strong reactionary attitude.”

This attitude “is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally,” he said, and cautioned against what he calls “indietrismo,” meaning being backward-looking, saying this attitude “is useless and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals.”

He quoted from 5th century Gallic monk Vincent of Lérins, who said, “You develop a doctrine so that it is consolidated in years, expanded in time, and exalted by age.”

“Doctrine also progresses, expands and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but is always progressing. Change develops from the roots upward, growing in accord with these three criteria,” Francis said.

To this end, the pope pointed to changes in the Catholic Church’s position on issues such as slavery, nuclear weapons, and the death penalty, saying the development of these teachings implies upward movement and shows that “change is necessary.”

Vincent of Lérins, he said, also makes a comparison between human biological development and the transmission of faith over the passage of time, saying, “Our understanding of the human person changes with time, and our consciousness also deepens.”

“The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous,” Francis said, saying some people “opt out” from this process of change and understanding, and “they go backward.”

“When you go backward, you form something closed, disconnected from the roots of the Church and you lose the sap of revelation,” he said, insisting that if healthy change is not embraced, “You go backward, and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change.”

Pope Francis said the effects of going backwards on morality “are devastating,” and that “the problems that moralists have to examine today are very serious, and to deal with them they have to take the risk of making changes, but in the direction I was saying.”

Again referring to the situation in the United States and the “climate of closure” among some American Catholics, the pope said this climate is present in some areas and when this is the case, “You can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support.”

“In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church,” he said.

“Those American groups you talk about, so closed, are isolating themselves. Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies. When you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war”, he said.

Asked about Catholic homosexuals who lead overall virtuous lives but believe their relationships aren’t sinful, Pope Francis spoke about the need for the Church to be welcoming and to be more flexible when it comes to so-called “sins of the flesh.”

He insisted, as he has done repeatedly, including several times in Portugal, that in the Gospels, “There is no discussion about the call being addressed to everyone. Jesus is very clear about this: Everyone.”

“Everyone has their own space in the Church,” and as pastors, “We help people live so that they can occupy that place with maturity, and this applies to all kinds of people,” he said.

Noting that there is a priest in the Diocese of Rome who works with the LGBTQ+ community, the pope said the issue of homosexuality in modern society “is very strong, and the sensitivity in this regard changes according to historical circumstances.”

Pope Francis said that one thing he does not like is that “we look at the so-called ‘sins of the flesh’ with a magnifying glass, just as we have done for so long for the sixth commandment.”

“If you exploited workers, if you lied or cheated, it didn’t matter, and instead sins below the waist were relevant,” he said.

When it comes to the individuals involved, “The most appropriate pastoral attitude for each person must be applied,” he said.

Francis insisted that as pastors, “We must not be superficial and naive, forcing people into things and behaviors for which they are not yet mature, or are not capable. It takes a lot of sensitivity and creativity to accompany people spiritually and pastorally.”

He then noted that his Wednesday general audiences are attended by a Charles de Foucauld sister named Sister Geneviève, who is in her eighties and is a chaplain at the Circus in Rome with two other sisters.

These sisters, the pope said, live in a mobile home near the circus and have a little chapel there, and they work a lot with people who are transgender individuals. He said he visited their house one day and when one of the nuns asked if she could bring the transgender people, he said yes.

“Then, after the first surprise, they made a habit of coming. Some write to me, and I email them back…I realized that these people feel rejected, and it is really hard,” he said, but insisted that, “everyone is called to live in the Church: never forget that.”

Pope Francis was also asked by the youngest Jesuit in the province how to develop and live out a proper formation in a hyper-sexualized and consumerist society.

In his response, the pope said, “We live in a worldly society, which worries me a lot,” calling spiritual worldliness a “recurring pitfall” that also effects consecrated life.

“You have to learn to distinguish: it is one thing to prepare for dialogue with the world – as you do with dialogue with the worlds of art and culture – it is another thing to compromise yourself with the things of the world, with worldliness,” he said.

Francis stressed the importance of dialoging with the world, “for we cannot live as though preserved like pickled food.”

“We must not be introverted religionists, smiling inwardly, talking inwardly, protecting our environment without engaging with anyone. We have to go out into this world with its values and faults,” he said.

The pope then recalled a speech he gave to priests working in the curia last year, during which he spoke about pornography and cell phone use and asked how many of them watch porn on their phones. One of priest, he said, later commented that, ‘You can see that he has spent hours in the confessional.’

In the past, problems such as this were more hidden, but “today, thank God, the door is wide open, and there is no reason for problems to remain hidden.”

“If you hide your problems, it is because you choose to do so, but it is not the fault of society, or even your religious community,” he said, saying one of the greatest current risks are the “hidden refuges of self-seeking, which many times involve sexuality, but also other matters.”

Pope Francis said that “I am not afraid of sexualized society,” but is more afraid of “how we relate to it. I am afraid of worldly criteria,” a term he said “encompasses everything, for example, the eagerness to promote oneself, the eagerness to stand out.”

In the lengthy Q&A session, the pope also spoke about prioritizing the poor and accompanying them so they do not become embittered, saying that in today’s world, “spirituality itself is leading us in that direction, toward an engagement with those on the margins, not only on the margin of religion, but also on the margin of life.”

He also touched on the Second Vatican Council and his ‘dream’ for the future of the Church, noting that many Catholics “question Vatican II without naming it. They question the teachings of Vatican II.”

“If I look to the future, I think we have to follow the Spirit, see what it tells us, with courage,” he said, saying his dream for the future “is to be open to what the Spirit is telling us, open to discernment and not caught up with functionalism.”

Francis also spoke on the problem of clericalism among both priests and laity, saying it affects both, but is “worse when it creeps into the laity. The clericalized laity are frightening.”

He also touched on the vocations crisis, including within the Jesuit order, as well as his own joys and challenges.

Pope Francis said that his greatest joy at the moment is “the preparation for the synod, even though sometimes I see, in some parts, that there are shortcomings in the way it is being conducted.”

Referring to the theme for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on Synodality, he said the aim “is not about going after votes, as a political party would.”

“It is not about preferences, about belonging to this or that party. In a synod, the principal figure is the Holy Spirit. He is the protagonist. So, you have to let the Spirit lead things,” he said, saying his greatest concern right now is war and the various conflicts raging throughout the world.