Pope Francis, “Estranged” Catholics, and Holy Communion

Published on October 20, 2021

George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference

Certain Catholic media platforms that often function as de facto extensions of Jen Psaki’s White House Press Office have continually urged the U.S. bishops to dodge the issue of pro-abortion Catholic politicians receiving Holy Communion. Pope Francis, for his part, offered some helpful comments on this contentious matter during a September press conference, held as he was returning to Rome from a visit to Hungary and Slovakia. “Those who are not in the community cannot receive Communion,” the pope said, speaking of the unbaptized and those “who are estranged” from the Church. 

Exactly. And that is the key ecclesial fact in play when Catholic political leaders willfully promote elective abortion—just as it was when Catholic public officials refused to desegregate schools in their jurisdictions. In both instances, the men and women in question deny, by their actions, an essential truth of Catholic faith: the inalienable dignity of every human person. Their actions publicly declare that they are not in full communion with the Church.  

That is the objective reality; it is not a judgment on the subjective culpability or moral condition of a given public official. No minister of Holy Communion can know with certainty that that public official is in a state of mortal sin when he or she approaches the altar to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. The official in question may be ill-catechized, or invincibly ignorant, or cognitively impaired. But the subjective moral condition of the pro-abortion politician—Is this person in a state of mortal sin?—is not the crux of the matter. And the question of the reception of Holy Communion by Catholic politicians promoting abortions shouldn’t be framed in those terms. 

What the minister of Holy Communion can know, for it would be impossible not to know, is that a Catholic public official who promotes what the pope (in that same press conference) called the “homicide” of the unborn is objectively in a state of serious estrangement from the Church, whatever his or her personal moral condition or canonical status. Those who are seriously estranged from the Church remain members of the Church by reason of their baptism. But they ought not act as if they were in full communion with the Church. 

This discussion has focused almost exclusively on bishops, priests, and other ministers of Holy Communion denying the sacrament to wayward politicians. That, too, is the wrong focus, at least initially. Those not in full communion with the Church—those who, by their public actions, have demonstrated their rejection of an essential truth of Catholic faith—should have the integrity not to present themselves for reception of the Eucharist. The first burden of obligation rests on those men and women.

To recognize this, however, is not to suggest that pastors have no obligations; quite the contrary. As Pope Francis also said, the first obligation of pastors is to try to help objectively estranged Catholics—people “temporarily outside the community,” as the pope put it—come to understand the truth of their situation: that they are not in full communion with the Church and should not act at Mass as if they were. If, after appropriate instruction undertaken with charity and clarity, the objectively estranged Catholic continues, by public actions, to reject certain truths that identify a Catholic, a responsible pastor has the obligation to instruct that person not to present himself or herself for Holy Communion. For as the bishops of Latin America, led by the future pope, said in 2007, public officials who encourage “grave crimes” against life “cannot receive Holy Communion.”

To get down to cases: I have no way of knowing whether President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and other Catholic public officials actively promoting abortion are in a state of mortal sin. Multiple factors are involved in committing a mortal sin. What I do know—because President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and those Catholic public officials actively promoting elective abortions have told me so by their actions—is that these men and women are objectively in a defective state of communion with the Church. That estrangement, to borrow the pope’s term, is of such severity that they ought not present themselves for Holy Communion. 

To receive the Eucharist is more than an expression of personal piety. It is a statement of one’s full communion with the Church. Making that clear, by instruction if possible and disciplinary action if necessary, is a pastoral obligation. “It is not,” Pope Francis said, “a punishment.” Nor is it “weaponizing” the Eucharist. It is calling the estranged to deeper conversion to Christ. That is what good shepherds do.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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