Obviously, this is unsurprising. And it combines interestingly with an interview Pope Francis gave on his flight home from his visit to Slovenia. He categorically described abortion as: “more than a problem; it’s homicide”. But when he was asked what approach the US bishops should take to those politicians (including the president) who support abortion – should they deny them communion? – he responded. “What should the pastor do?”
“I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone. Anyone!” the Pope said in an answer to a question from Gerard O’Connell of America. “If you say to me: but can you give or cannot give [Communion]? It is casuistry…”
Pope Francis has combined an absolutely unambiguous condemnation of abortion with an unwillingness to approve withholding communion from politicians who make it legally accessible.
What is interesting is how differently these remarks have been interpreted. The Tablet’s Christopher Lamb described the Pope’s remarks as a “challenge” to those US bishops who favoured barring the president from communion. The Spectator’s Damian Thompson in his Holy Smoke podcast took an entirely different approach: “it was hard to escape the obvious conclusion. The Pope regards the President as barred from Communion – which drives a horse and cart through the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy of Biden’s own bishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington.” His conclusion was that “the Pope has just thrown the fanatically pro-choice President of the United States under the bus”.
So, what did the Pope say? Judging from the fact that two different experts have taken opposite interpretations of the Pope’s remarks, he has been rather clever. He has combined an absolutely unambiguous condemnation of abortion with an unwillingness to approve withholding communion from politicians who make it legally accessible. A pastor does not want to exclude his sheep; a bishop may on those grounds continue to give communion to a President who, in the pope’s terms, facilitates prenatal homicide. Indeed, in the queue for communion in any church there may be any number of people in a state of mortal sin, sometimes notoriously so. But although abortion is still grounds for excommunication under Canon Law, the Pope has enabled priests to absolve in confession those who participate in abortions without referring the matter to the local bishop. That is a pastoral approach.
The principle that we should go to communion only if we are in a state of grace is a sound and long established one. Yet the Pope does not want pastors to exclude anyone. One participant in the first eucharist, the Last Supper, was the apostle who left it to betray Christ. And yet, what the Pope’s unambiguous remarks about abortion suggest, which Cardinal Wilton also made clear, is that President Biden should be examining his conscience rather carefully before taking communion.
The Pope has enabled priests to absolve in confession those who participate in abortions.
It is one thing to say that legal abortion is a terrible necessity, whereby the termination of human life is only legal in order that it should be safe for those who seek it, and should be restricted as far as possible; quite another to endorse the practice without any apparent qualification, as President Biden has done. Indeed, he has made clear that he intends to obstruct and if possible override the Texas state government in its attempt to restrict abortions to the first six weeks of gestation.
For my own part, I think it would be very odd to bar President Biden or other pro-abortion politicians from communion, given that American bishops and priests have given communion to those who approved or took part in, for instance, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Church’s pro-life approach should not be limited to its beginning and end. But there is nothing to prevent Cardinal Wilton from re-emphasising the Church’s position on abortion the next time the President is in his congregation. Joe Biden has paid a high price in conscience for his presidency.
Melanie McDonagh is a freelance journalist.
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