Asked if Biden should be denied communion over his pro-choice stance, Pope Francis today said bishops should be \u201Cpastors, and not go condemning.\u201D Francis says he has never denied anyone communion https://t.co/8YvTQbjEqZ
— Michelle Boorstein (@mboorstein) September 15, 2021
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How does a ship’s captain sail against a headwind?
The maneuver is called “tacking” and it consists of steering the ship back and forth, at roughly 45 degree angles across the chosen course. The question — with all the left and right turns — is this: What is the course that runs through the middle? Where is the captain trying to go?
It’s impossible to figure that out by studying only the turns to the left or to the right. Dare I say that this task is even more difficult if the captain of the ship is a modern Jesuit?
So what was the course Pope Francis was trying to sail the other day during his in-flight Shepherd One press conference about abortion, Communion and the pastoral needs of Catholics (including, perhaps, powerful politicians)? In the mainstream press, the big turns were all to the left, with the pope warning U.S. bishops not to meddle in the state of President Joe Biden’s soul. Readers had to turn to Catholic publications to find any hint that Pope Francis was, perhaps, seeking a middle course.
This was best seen in the piece that ran in the “Politics Section” (#DUH) of the New York Times. The headline stated the basics:
Pope Weighs In on Calls to Deny Communion to Biden Over Abortion
“What must the pastor do?” Francis said when a reporter asked him about the subject. “Be a pastor, don’t go condemning.”
Everything readers needed to know, from the doctrinal point of view of the Times, was right up top:
ROME — Pope Francis weighed in on Wednesday on a debate roiling the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, where conservative bishops are pushing for guidelines that would deny communion to politicians, like President Biden, who support abortion rights.
“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.
Later, there was this:
“What must the pastor do?” he asked. “Be a pastor, don’t go condemning. Be a pastor, because he is a pastor also for the excommunicated.”
The issue has become one of the deepest rifts within the church in the United States, as well as between the American church and the Vatican. With an observant, liberal Catholic in the White House, some leading American prelates want to draw a harder line on abortion, making opposition to it a more central requirement of the faith.
The word “observant” is crucial, of course, since Pope Francis later said that abortion is an issue that can push a Catholic “out of the community” — perhaps temporarily — and, thus, out of Communion with the church. That second tack by Francis was never mentioned in the Times piece.
Thus, no connection was made between the Communion issue and this statement that was included, way down in the body of the story:
… (The) pope emphatically restated the Catholic position that abortion is homicide. “Abortion is more than a problem — abortion is homicide,” he said, speaking in Italian. “Whoever has an abortion kills.”
“It is a human life,” Francis said. “This human life must be respected — this principle is so clear.”
Now, contrast the Times message with that offered in the main story at Crux, starting with the headline stating: “Pope says pro-choice politicians ‘outside community’ of Church, but urges pastoral response.”
One to the right, one to the left? Here’s the lede”
ON BOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis … said that Communion is for those who are “in the community” and politicians who support abortion are “outside of the community.” However, he also said that in these cases, it’s a pastoral matter that must be addressed by the individual’s pastor.
Here is the contact for the “community” language:
“… Those who are not in the community, cannot receive communion,” he said. “Out of the community: Excommunicated, it’s a harsh word, but they don’t belong in the community, because they were not baptized, or because they are estranged from it.”
Francis then referred to the “abortion issue,” saying that it’s “more than a problem: It’s a homicide. No middle terms. Whomever does an abortion, kills.” …
According to Francis, the Church is so “harsh” on this issue because it’s very clear: It’s a human life and not a problem that can be solved by “hiring a hit-man.” The Church accepting abortion, he said, would be like the Church “accepting daily homicide.”
“Those people who are not in the community cannot take communion, because they are out of the community,” he insisted. “It is not a punishment: Communion is linked to the community.”
That’s a come complicated statement, right?
But the Times was not alone in seeing, and reporting, only one side the answers by Pope Francis. Consider this lede from Religion News Service:
VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Flying home from his papal visit to central Europe … Pope Francis weighed in on the debate about whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be denied Communion, stating that he has never denied the Eucharist to anyone and that the issue should be handled in a pastoral way.
The Washington Post went even further in its paraphrased interpretations of the pope’s message and intent.
Let me stress that the following quotes are not from an piece carrying an “analysis” label:
While Francis reiterated that abortion is “murder,” his comments appeared like a rebuke of bishops who have advocated for taking a hard line against Biden.
“I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone,” Francis said, while adding that he has never knowingly encountered during Communion a politician who backs abortion rights.
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 attendee.
In another example of no-attribution mind reading, there was this:
… bishops on the other [liberal] side see more political motivations from conservatives, who can use the Communion debate as a proxy in the larger battle over abortion while making an example of a president whom they see as aligned with Francis’s version of progressive Catholicism.
Now, journalists seeking some of the legal background — legal as in doctrine and Catholic canon law — will want to check out the explainer at The Pillar.
The key here, I think, is this question: What was the context for the pope’s discussions of those who are “temporarily outside the community”? According to the canon lawyers/journalists at this website, Pope Francis said:
… (P)astoral action does not mean ignoring the problem of abortion, or those Catholics who support it.
“And what should the pastor do? He shouldn’t go around condemning. And he must also be a pastor with those who are excommunicated, and be so with God’s style, which is closeness, compassion and tenderness.”
“Those people who are not in the community cannot take communion, because they are out of the community,” the pope continued. “It is not a punishment: Communion is linked to the community.”
The focus, he said, should not be on labeling individuals as “excommunicated,” but instead considering them to be people “temporarily outside of the community” who remain “children of God and need our pastoral action and they want, and need, our pastoral closeness. Then the pastors work things out by the Spirit of God.”
Church law clearly applies to those who perform abortions or cooperate in the act of an abortion. However, The Pillar team also — in a passage that is long, but crucial — that:
Canon 915 can … apply to politicians who advocate for permissive abortion laws, if a pastor or diocesan bishop judges their advocacy is “obstinate” — which means they have been warned or exhorted to change their behavior, and they have not done so.
Prohibiting such persons from receiving the Eucharist is not meant to be a permanent measure; it is instead intended to call them to repentance, while at the same time clarifying that such advocacy is as a rupture from ecclesial communion.
This leads to a 2004 quote by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in an address to U.S. bishops:
Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.
“When ‘these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,’ and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, ‘the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it’.”
This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgement on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.
Cardinal Ratzinger would, of course, become Pope Benedict XVI.
Stay tuned, journalists, and look for other tacks that this Vatican ship takes on this topic, tacks in both directions.
One can read these Francis remarks as a suggestion that truly “pastoral” bishops should to be taking stronger actions behind the scenes with liberal Catholics who — in word and deed — oppose church teachings. If these private actions and requests fail, then it might be time for someone to be declared “temporarily outside the community.”
FIRST IMAGE: “The Church as a Ship,” a symbol at the website of WindStar Embroidery Designs.
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