Pope Francis on Wednesday weighed in on a debate rocking the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, where conservative bishops want to deny communion to politicians, like President Joe Biden, who support the right to abortion.
“I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone,” Francis said, although he added that he did not know of any case where such a politician had come to see him for communion.
Bishops should be pastors, he said, not politicians.
It was the closest pope to tackle the issue head on, although the Vatican warned conservative U.S. bishops in June against their willingness to deny Communion to Biden, who is only the second Roman Catholic to be president. Francis left little doubt about his point of view.
“If we look at the history of the church, we will see that whenever the bishops have not dealt with a problem as pastors, they have taken sides on a political front,” he told reporters. on his plane on his way back from a day trip to Slovakia and Hungary.
He cited a story of atrocities committed in the name of the faith when the church got involved in politics.
“What should the pastor do? He asked. “Be a pastor, don’t go condemning. Be a pastor, because he is also a pastor for the excommunicated.
“Communion is not a price for the perfect,” Francis said, echoing statements he has made in the past, but not specifically in the context of politics or the United States. Arguing that the church should be as open as possible, he said at a mass in June that “the Eucharist is not the reward of saints but the bread of sinners”.
On Wednesday, the Pope emphatically reaffirmed the Catholic position that abortion is homicide.
“It’s more than a problem, it’s murder,” he said in Italian. “He who aborts kills, no half-words.
“It’s a human life,” he added. “This human life must be respected – this principle is so clear.”
Despite warnings from Rome, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted in June to develop guidelines for the administration of the Eucharist, which conservatives hope can be the basis for denying politicians who promote the right to abortion. Once drafted, the proposed guidelines are expected to go to the bishops’ vote in November, with two-thirds approval required for adoption.
The issue has become one of the deepest divisions within the Church in the United States, as well as between the American Church and the Vatican. With a practicing liberal Catholic in the White House, some prominent American prelates want to draw a harsher line on abortion, making the opposition a more central demand for the faith.
The pope’s comments on Wednesday came as abortion once again took center stage in US and Mexican politics.
This month, the nation’s most restrictive abortion law came into effect in Texas, and the Biden administration took to the courts in an attempt to block it. And the Supreme Court is expected to pass an abortion law in Mississippi in a case that anti-abortion activists say will reverse abortion rights precedents set by Roe v. Wade in 1973 and subsequent decisions.
Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled last week decriminalizing abortion in the country.
Francis was not asked about, and did not address, the US or Mexican lawsuits.
He spoke candidly of other issues, however, including the rise of anti-Semitism – he’s “making a resurgence, it’s all the rage, it’s an ugly, ugly thing” – and his brief meeting on Sunday with the Prime Minister. Hungarian Minister Viktor Orban, noting that the anti-immigrant policies of the Hungarian leader had not appeared in their interaction.
Asked about the European Parliament’s resolution this month calling on member states to recognize same-sex marriages contracted in European countries where such unions are possible, Francis reaffirmed that marriage is a sacrament and that there are civil laws to “help the situation of many people who have a different sexual orientation.”
The Pope, who has taken a particularly tolerant stance towards homosexuals compared to his predecessors, has spoken of civil unions as a way to meet people’s needs. But he said that “marriage is marriage” between “a man and a woman”. People of different sexual orientations can participate in church life, he said, “but please don’t deny the truth to the church.”
Francis also reiterated his belief that coronavirus vaccinations were essential after being asked about Christians in Slovakia divided over vaccination. He apparently referred to an American cardinal, Raymond Burke, who spread misinformation about vaccines and then was treated for COVID-19 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“Even in the College of Cardinals,” Francis said, “there are anti-vaccines, and one of them, the poor man, is in the hospital with the virus. Life is ironic.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.