ROME — Wading into an issue splitting the U.S. Catholic Church, Pope Francis said Wednesday the decision about granting Communion to pro-choice politicians should be made from a strictly pastoral point of view, not a political one.
Francis did not take a direct stance on the raging debate over whether President Joe Biden should be denied the sacred Catholic rite because of an abortion stance that goes against church doctrine. But the pope advised that bishops should be “pastors, and not go condemning.”
“God’s style is closeness, compassion and tenderness,” Francis said.
Francis, speaking to reporters as he returned from a four-day trip to Hungary and Slovakia, was asked specifically about the situation in the United States, where Biden’s election has elevated a long-simmering question about how to treat Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. While Francis reiterated that abortion is “murder,” his comments appeared like a rebuke of bishops who have advocated a hard line against Biden.
“I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone,” Francis said, while adding that he has never knowingly encountered a pro-choice politician during the rite of Communion.
Though the pope said he was speaking generally, and did not know the specifics of the situation in the United States, his comments will add to the pressure facing U.S. bishops on how to handle their highest-profile Mass-goer.
In June, U.S. Catholic bishops voted 168-55 to draft a “teaching document” on the Eucharist, and they are slated to discuss the draft at their next meeting, in November. Some bishops have hoped the document, expected to include references to church law barring certain people, can provide a justification for withholding Communion from Biden.
But because the document will not be an outright call for denying him and other politicians, many church-watchers fear the months-long process will do little more than maintain the status quo while revealing the fissures within the American Catholic Church — and between particular bishops and the second U.S. Catholic president, as well.
Conference members agree that it will still be up to individual bishops to decide whether to grant Communion to politicians in their dioceses. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, has made it clear that he favors giving Communion to Biden. Gregory has paraphrased Francis, arguing that the church should seek out dialogue even when there are disagreements.
The message to the broader group of U.S. prelates from the Vatican, starting months ago, in a letter from the pope’s doctrinal office, has been to move with unity and avoid letting the issue become a point of “discord.” Francis subsequently said in a homily that Communion “is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.”
Francis extended that message Wednesday, saying that Communion is “not a prize for the perfect.” He reiterated the sin of abortion, but also warned against going “beyond the pastoral dimension of the Church.” He depicted Communion as a chance to pastor and mentioned an experience of celebrating Mass in a nursing home. He asked the residents who wanted Communion, and all raised their hands.
“One little old lady raised her hand and received Communion and said, ‘Thank you, I’m Jewish,’ ” Francis said.
She wasn’t a Catholic so she couldn’t receive it.
“But the Lord wanted to reward her without my knowledge,” Francis said.
Francis’s message does leave room for interpretation. Some U.S. bishops argue that they have pastoral grounds for denying Communion to Biden. Archbishop Joseph Naumann, of Kansas City, said earlier this year that Biden’s “soul is in jeopardy.”
But bishops on the other side see more political motivations from conservatives, who can use the Communion debate as a proxy in the larger abortion wars while making an example of a president whom they see as aligned with Francis’s version of progressive Catholicism.
Recent popes have refrained from setting doctrine on who may be denied Communion, preferring to emphasize church teachings, including that abortion is a grave sin. They have also tended to treat Communion as a matter between a Catholic, their consciences, God and their priest.
U.S. Catholic politicians who support abortion rights — as well as those who seem to be afoul of church teachings on other matters, such as the death penalty, racism and the treatment of immigrants — have received Communion at papal masses in the United States presided over by Francis and by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Pope John Paul II also gave Communion to abortion rights supporters.
John McGreevy, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, said it was “fairly clear” that Francis was encouraging Catholics and bishops “not to use Communion as a weapon against particular politicians for particular issues.”
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Boorstein reported from Washington.