At his 29th October meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, Pope Francis missed a golden opportunity to exercise pastoral responsibility and moral guidance to an errant Catholic. Instead, with the eyes and ears of the world focused on them, the Holy Father gave the President a pass. In doing so, he neither served the President well, nor his worldwide Catholic Christian flock.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the White House issued a statement saying that the two discussed “advocacy for the world’s poor and those suffering from hunger, conflict, and persecution.” The Vatican’s statement said only that the meeting was “private,” and did not provide any details about the content of the meeting. According to independent press reports, the President and Holy Father discussed various matters, but abortion was not among them.
At the conclusion of the meeting, President Biden was asked if abortion was discussed. In response, as reported by numerous news outlets, the President said that the Holy Father called him a “good Catholic” and said that he should continue to receive communion. I find this claim highly dubious. The President’s well-known proclivity for uttering easily refuted falsehoods gives legitimacy to my doubts. But even if the Pope did not say these things, he also did not admonish the President to desist from his grave moral error of abortion advocacy.
Pastors must act prudently in the care of the souls of their flock, both individually and corporately. Pastoral concern over the health of the soul demands not only doctrinal integrity, but also pastoral sensitivity. Like any interaction with individual persons, styles of interface must be contingent upon the peculiar attributes of the person being counselled. It is never enough simply to say, “This is the Church’s moral doctrine, and you must obey it.” On the other hand, to ignore grave moral evil entirely is never consistent with pastoral responsibility. The balance is not easily struck. But it appears that Pope Francis did not even attempt it.
The guiding principle for all pastoral decisions must be love—willing the best for the other— and fashioning a response commensurate with that. It is never loving to confirm one in moral error, nor to ignore when one’s error is flagrant and notorious. This is why the meeting between Pope Francis and President Biden is so deeply disappointing, and such a profoundly missed pastoral opportunity both to put the Church’s teaching on abortion on a world stage and to admonish an errant Catholic.
This not to gainsay the issues that White House said were discussed. We cannot set aside issues related to the environment, immigration, and other human life issues. They deserve our attention, and we neglect them at the peril of those whose health and lives are at stake, and at the peril of our own souls. So, we cannot simply say, “these things don’t matter if abortion is not addressed.” They do matter, whether abortion is the focus or our moral vision at any particular time. And prudence dictates our responses to these needs as well.
But abortion is, as the American bishops have said, the “preeminent” moral issue of our time. Indeed, on 15 September 2021, the Holy Father himself declared, without equivocation or embarrassment, that abortion is “murder.” “Scientifically, it’s a human life,” he said. Thus, to take that human life through abortion is “homicide, whoever has an abortion, kills. No mincing words.” To accept abortion is to “accept daily murder,” he concluded. Of course, the necessary implication is that whoever encourages and abets abortion encourages and abets murder – no mincing words.
Joe Biden denies that an unborn child is a human life. He openly and notoriously encourages and abets abortion. And not passively or as an accommodation to political contingencies in a pluralist society. Biden has consistently said that abortion is morally legitimate and that it is morally illegitimate to deny access to it. “It is a woman’s right, period,” he has said. This necessarily implies that that those who do not believe that abortion is morally legitimate are themselves immoral. This must include Pope Francis.
Thus, for Joe Biden, support for the legitimacy of abortion is not just a political issue, as Pope Francis implied in the same 15th September conversation. It’s a moral issue. And President Biden has obstinately persisted in flagrant moral error. Thus, the Holy Father distorted the issue when he admonished American bishops not to politicise abortion. For President Biden, abortion is morally legitimate. And he believes that enabling access to abortion is as morally mandatory as facilitating access to “health care.” Thus, he expressly denies a non-negotiable moral tenet of the Catholic faith. To use the Holy Father’s own words, Joe Biden believes that it is morally legitimate to commit, and morally mandatory to facilitate, “murder.”
But it is not merely Biden’s personal moral opinion that abortion is morally legitimate. As a candidate, he swore his determination to legislatively canalise the holding of Roe v. Wade, to prevent States from protecting unborn life. Among his first acts as President was his reversal of the previous administration’s policies that denied U.S. funding of abortions abroad. He has pledged to support Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the world, with U.S. tax dollars.
How, then, can the Holy Father—the first among equals of the shepherds of the Church—meet with the President for more than 75 minutes and not issue disciplined guidance to his wayward sheep? It was a missed opportunity—on a global scale—to balance pastoral sensitivity with doctrinal integrity. And the message it sends to the world community is that the second-most famous Catholic in the world can persist in grave moral error with impunity.
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