Pope Francis has let it be known indirectly through his Vatican agents that he is not happy with the efforts of conservative U.S. bishops to deny communion to pro-choice politicians, including, of course, the Catholic president, Joe Biden. The pontiff has also more generally expressed opposition to the idea of “weaponizing the Eucharist” by granting or denying access to the sacrament as a way of compelling compliance with Church teachings, writing that the Body and Blood of Christ thought to be present in the wafer and wine are “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
But now he has for the first time personally addressed the question of denying communion to politicians like Biden:
“I have never refused the eucharist to anyone,” Francis said, though he added that he did not know of any instance when such a politician had come to him for communion. Bishops should be pastors, he said, not politicians. …
“If we look at the history of the church, we will see that every time the bishops have not managed a problem as pastors, they have taken a political stance on a political problem,” he told reporters on his plane as he returned from a four-day trip to Slovakia and Hungary. He cited a history of atrocities committed in the name of the faith when the church became involved in politics.
So the pope has fired a double-barreled volley at conservatives who want to “discipline” Biden and other “bad Catholics” in public life (like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who was threatened by bishops with denial of communion during his 2004 campaign). He’s telling them they are betraying their pastoral duties (while implicitly reminding them Biden has an actual pastor, his own parish priest and bishop, who haven’t joined their censorious clerical colleagues) and he’s accusing them of playing a dangerous game of politics that in the past has led to atrocities. These are strong words for those who by their own conservative doctrines must soberly obey him as the Vicar of Christ.
The timing of these comments was interesting. Back in June the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops brushed aside the Vatican’s misgivings and authorized the promulgation of a “document on the Eucharist” that was broadly understood to be aimed at reception of communion by public figures who rejected Church teachings, especially on abortion. The draft document is expected to be released at some point this autumn, with a two-thirds vote of the bishops required to adopt it, and a Vatican veto slowing it down or stopping it being entirely possible.
So consider this another papal warning designed to head off a collision with the American bishops. It should be understood in the context of tensions between conservatives and their pope on other issues, from his aggressive endorsement of action against climate change to his restrictions on the divisive and unregulated use of the traditional Latin Mass. In an atmosphere still heavily clouded by recent clerical sexual-abuse scandals and widespread resistance to Church teachings on birth control and divorce, it’s probably not the best time for the bishops to embrace self-righteousness.