On his flight back to Rome after finishing his trip to Slovakia, Pope Francis took questions from reporters on the plane, as is the custom. He was asked about pro-abortion politicians receiving Holy Communion. In his response, the Holy Father was emphatic about the grave moral evil of abortion. “Abortion is more than an issue. Abortion is murder,” Pope Francis said. “Scientifically it’s a human life. The textbooks teach us that. But is it right to take it out to solve a problem? And this is why the Church is so strict on this issue because it is kind of like accepting this is accepting daily murder,” Francis said. “It’s a human life, period,” Francis emphasized, “This human life must be respected. This principle is so clear.” For those who justify abortion, the Holy Father posed two questions, comparing hiring a doctor to abort one’s child to hiring a hitman: “Is it right, is it fair, to kill a human life to solve a problem? Scientifically it is a human life. … Is it right to hire a hitman to solve a problem?”
Francis was frank (excuse the pun!) about the problem of receiving Holy Communion for those who are outside communion with the Church. “Because they are out of the community, excommunicated, they are ‘excommunicated’ it is called. It is a harsh term, but what it means is that they are not in the community, or because they do not belong, or are baptized but have drifted away from some of the things.” He said clearly, “Those who are not in the community cannot take Communion.”
Even still, he counseled bishops and priests to be pastoral rather than condemnatory with politicians who support abortion. “What should the pastor do?” Francis asked. “Be a shepherd, do not go around condemning … but be a pastor. But is he also a pastor of the excommunicated? Yes, he is the pastor and … he must be a shepherd with God’s style. And God’s style is closeness, compassion, and tenderness,” the pope said. He refused, however, to get into specifics about particular politicians, insisting he was not familiar with particular situations. “For me, I don’t want to particularize […] the United States because I don’t know the details well, I give the principle … Be a pastor and the pastor knows what he has to do at all times, but as a shepherd. But if he comes out of this shepherding of the Church, immediately he becomes a politician,” Francis said.
Of course, several Catholic politicians who support abortion have been personally counselled by their bishops to not present themselves for Holy Communion, and several general statements have been made. It’s really impossible to imagine that a Catholic politician who supports abortion in the United States would be unaware of the Church’s teaching on the matter, and of the Church’s counsel that such a politician ought not present him or herself for Holy Communion. Even still, they usually do. They choose to exploit Francis’ pastoral approach, interpreting it as permission to do what they want, regardless of Church teaching. The practice of the bishops on the matter has not been consistent, with some insisting that these persons should not present themselves for Communion, some priests denying them Communion, but other bishops publicly stating that they would not deny such persons Communion, in spite of Canon Law that says those who persist in obstinate sin should not receive.
Pope Francis’ position seems clear: we cannot pretend that abortion is anything other than murder. It is a grave moral evil, and those who support it are participating in grave moral evil, even to the point of not being in communion with the Church. Even still, it’s the responsibility of bishops and priests to approach such persons pastorally, without condemnation, and to counsel them to embrace the Church’s teaching. Ultimately, whether an individual presents him or herself for Holy Communion will always be a personal decision. There are no locks on pews preventing anyone from getting in the Communion line.
But, (and this is me, not presuming to speak for Francis) that doesn’t mean that any particular bishop or priest or deacon or Eucharistic minister is obliged to give the Eucharist to a Catholic whose public support for abortion is well-known. It would be good for bishops to recommend to their people their own thoughts on the matter and how they might act if put in that position. For his part, Pope Francis said he has never denied anyone Communion, but isn’t aware that anyone who supports abortion and whose position is well-known by all has presented him or herself to him to receive Communion. I should be clear, too, that what I mean by “supporting” abortion isn’t just one’s personal stand on the question. Politicians are in a position to shape public policy. What I mean by “support,” then, is one who favors so-called abortion rights and uses their position of influence to shape public policy in favor of abortion rights. This influence isn’t exclusive to politicians, but it always includes politicians.
On the same flight, Pope Francis was asked about same-sex marriage and answered that the Church could not accept same-sex marriages because marriage is a sacrament and the Church cannot change the sacraments because they were instituted by Christ. Francis pointed out that there are civil laws that assist same-sex couples that don’t impose on the Church’s teaching, such as those that allow same-sex partners to inherit their partner’s estate, or be covered by their partner’s health insurance. “But marriage is marriage,” Francis insisted. “This does not mean condemning people who are like that. No, please. They are our brothers and sisters and we must accompany them.” There are civil laws that recognize civil unions, but not sacramental marriage, which is between a man and a woman. “Please,” Francis said, “don’t make the Church deny her truth.”
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.