During his flight back to Rome from Slovakia, Pope Francis spoke on several issues that are dividing the Church, especially in the US: the Covid vaccine, the denial of communion to pro-choice politicians, the Amoris Laetitia debate, and same-sex unions. There’s a lot to unpack here—indeed, there’s a lot to unpack about this entire trip—but there’s also a lot of spin out there about what he said in this in-flight press conference. In addition to these topics, Francis also responded to some questions about the reason for his stop in Hungary was so brief, and he seemed be trying to diffuse some of the tension between himself and Hungarian President Viktor Orbán.
(Note: There isn’t an official English transcript on the Vatican site yet, and there are several floating around, so I will be relying primarily on the CNA translation, the Vatican News translation, and Gerard O’Connell’s report in America.)
Slovak journalist Bohumil Petrik of the Denník Štandard asked about resistance to the Covid vaccine: “You say that getting the vaccine is an act of love. And when you do not get the vaccine, what would you call it? Some believers have felt discriminated against and there are different approaches in the different dioceses on this point. … So, we would all like to know how to get along, how to reconcile on this issue.”
In his response, Pope Francis said: “Humanity has a history of friendship with vaccines. As children, we got them for measles, for other things, for polio. All the children were vaccinated and no one said anything. Then this [opposition] happened. This was perhaps due to the virulence, the uncertainty not only about the pandemic, but also about the different vaccines, and also the reputation of some vaccines which are nothing more than distilled water. This created fear in people.”
O’Connell reported what the pope said next: “‘I cannot explain it well. Some say it is because vaccines are not sufficiently tested.’ But, he added, ‘Even in the College of Cardinals there are some anti-vaxxers, and one of them, poor man, was hospitalized with the virus.’ Journalists understood this as referring to Cardinal Raymond Burke, though Francis did not name him.”
In Pope Francis’s answer, he reveals that he is just as mystified as many of us about the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. It seems that he has tried to understand the various fears and concerns that vaccine resistant Catholics have—with sensitivity and compassion, but he clearly can’t fully understand the feat that drives them.
America’s Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell asked the question from the English-speaking group. First he commented that “the surgery produced a splendid result and that you are rejuvenated.” He then asked a question that is on the minds of many Catholics, especially in the United States:
“Holy Father, you have often said we are all sinners, and that the Eucharist is not a reward for the perfect but a medicine and food for the weak. As you know, in the USA, particularly after the last elections, but even since 2004, there has been a discussion among the bishops about giving communion to politicians who have supported laws in favour of abortion and the woman’s right to choose.
And as you know, there are bishops who want to deny communion to the president and others who hold office. There are other bishops who are opposed, there are other bishops who say “you do not need to use the Eucharist as a weapon.” My question, Holy Father: What do you think about all this, and what do you advise the bishops? Then, a second question: You, as bishop, in all these years, have you publicly refused the Eucharist to anyone like this?“
To this, Pope Francis responded (provided in its entirety for full context):
“No, I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone, to anyone. I don’t know if anyone in that condition came, but I never, never refused the Eucharist. As a priest, that is. Never. I have never been aware of having a person like the one you describe in front of me, that is true. Simply, the only time I ever had a bit…an interesting thing, was when I went to celebrate Mass in a rest home and we were in the living room, and I said: “Raise your hand if you want to receive Communion.” Everyone, the old men, the old women, everyone wanted Communion, and when I gave Communion to one woman, she took me by the hand and said to me: ‘Thank you, Father, thank you: I’m Jewish.’ I said: ‘No, the one that I gave to you is Jewish, too…’ The only strange thing, but the woman received Communion first, she said it after.
No, I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone, to anyone. I don’t know if anyone in that condition came, but I never, never refused the Eucharist.
No. Communion is not a prize for the perfect, no? Let’s think of Port Royal (des Champs), of the issue with Angélique Arnaud, Jansenism: those who are perfect can receive Communion. Communion is a gift, a present; the presence of Jesus in his Church and in the community. This is the theology. Then, those who are not in the community cannot receive Communion, like this Jewish woman, but the Lord wanted to reward her without my knowledge. Why? Because they are out of the community—ex-comunitate—excommunicated they are called. It is a harsh term, but it means that they are not in the community, either because they do not belong to it, they are not baptized or have drifted away for some reason.
Second the problem of abortion. Abortion is more than a problem. Abortion is homicide. Abortion…without being ambiguous: whoever has an abortion kills. Take any book on embryology for medical students in medical school. The third week after conception, from the third week, often before the mamma is aware of it, all the organs are already there, even the DNA… Isn’t that a person? It is a human life, period. And this human life must be respected. This principle is so clear, and to those who cannot understand, I would ask two questions: is it right to kill a human life to solve a problem? Scientifically, it is a human life.
The second question: is it right to hire a hitman to solve a problem? I said this publically to Jordi Évole when he did it, I said it the other day to COPE, I wanted to repeat it… and that’s enough. Don’t ask strange questions. Scientifically it is a human life. Books teach this. I ask: is it right to throw it out to solve a problem? That is why the Church is so hard on this issue, because it’s a little like if she were to accept it, if she accepts this, it would be like accepting daily murder. A Head of State was telling me that the decline in population began by them, there is an age gap, because in those years there was such a strong law on abortion that they did six million abortions, it is calculated, and this left a sharp drop in the society of that country.
Now let’s get to that person who is not in the community, who cannot receive Communion because they are outside the community, and this is not a punishment. No, the person is outside. Communion is uniting yourself to the community. But the problem is not the theological problem—that is simple—the problem it is the pastoral problem: how do we bishops deal with this principle pastorally. And if we look at the history of the church we will see that every time the bishops have dealt with a problem not as pastors, they have taken taken a political stance on a political problem. Think of St Bartholomew’s Night: “Oh, heretics, yes. But it’s a serious heresy…let’s cut all their throats….” No: it is a political matter. Let’s think of Joan of Arc, about that vision, let’s think of the witch-hunt…. Let’s think of the Campo de’ Fiori, of Savonarola, of all those people.
Every time the bishops have dealt with a problem not as pastors, they have taken taken a political stance on a political problem.
When the church defends a principle in an unpastoral manner, it acts on a political level. And this has always been the case, just look at history. What must the pastor do? Be a pastor. Be a pastor and don’t go around condemning, not condemning…. But is he a pastor for the excommunicated too? Yes, he is a pastor and must be a pastor with him, to be a pastors with God’s style. And God’s style is closeness, compassion and tenderness. The entire Bible says so. Closeness is already there in Deuteronomy where he says to Israel: “Tell me what people has its gods as close as I am to you?” Closeness, compassion. The Lord has compassion on us as we read in Ezekiel, in Hosea. Tenderness was there already in the beginning. It is enough to look in the Gospels and the things of Jesus. A pastor who does not know how to act with God’s style, is slipping and does many things that are not pastoral.
For me, I do not want to specify, since you spoke of the United States, because I do not know the details well of the United States, I will give the principle. You could say to me: “But, if you are close, tender and compassionate with a person, would you give the person Communion?” This is a hypothesis. Be a pastor, and the pastor knows what he must do at all times, but as a pastor. But if he goes out of the pastoral dimension of the church, he immediately becomes a politician: You see this in all the accusations, in all the non-pastoral condemnations the church makes…
What must the pastor do? Be a pastor. Be a pastor and don’t go around condemning, not condemning…. But is he a pastor for the excommunicated too?
With this principle, I think a pastor should be able to move about well. The principles are taken from theology. Pastoral ministry is theology and the Holy Spirit who is leading you to act with the style of. God. I dare say up to here. If you say: can you give or not give? This is casuistry, what the theologians say.
Do you remember the storm that was whipped up with “Amoris Laetitia” when it came out with the chapter on the accompaniment of separated couples, divorced? Heresy, heresy! Thanks be to God there was Cardinal Schönborn there who is a great theologian, and he clarified things.
But always this condemnation, condemnation. An excommunication is enough, please let’s not make more excommunications. The poor people, they are children of God and they want and need our pastoral closeness. Then the pastor resolves things as the Spirit tells him.”
His lighthearted reference to the Jewish woman who received communion will surely irk some people. But in the end, what could he have done? He hadn’t known she was Jewish, and surely she didn’t know the theological reasons why she couldn’t receive. The fact is, it happened, and God allowed it to happen. We can get angry about something that we can’t change, or we can simply accept our own flawed humanity and God’s work in the mess. He then went on to explain the doctrine surrounding who may receive, but by opening with this story he’s making the point that sometimes things don’t work out according to the strict rules that are laid out before us.
On the matter of public figures who are pro-choice, Francis spoke out strongly against the immorality of abortion: “Abortion is more than a problem. Abortion is homicide. Abortion…without being ambiguous: whoever has an abortion kills.”
But he made a statement that seemed to be a critique of how the US bishops have addressed the problem, when he said, “Every time the bishops have dealt with a problem not as pastors, they have taken taken a political stance on a political problem.” Indeed, one criticism that many observers of the recent USCCB debate on the issue was the constand focus on the outcome of the US presidential election, the implication of the election, this potential law, that potential court case, the scandal of a political figure holding a particular position. When bishops from other dioceses push for a pastor to make certain decisions about members of his flock, that’s political. Quite often—too often—we look at our bishops as public figures who make public statements and take public stances. Quite often they court it.
Pope Francis didn’t endorse a specific policy. Instead, as he did with Amoris Laetitia, he leaves the question to the pastors, and entrusts them with the responsibility and a warning: “Be a pastor, and the pastor knows what he must do at all times, but as a pastor. But if he goes out of the pastoral dimension of the church, he immediately becomes a politician.”
Pope Francis mentioned Amoris Laetitia in his response: “Do you remember the storm that was whipped up with Amoris laetitia when it came out with the chapter on the accompaniment of separated couples, divorced? Heresy, heresy! Thanks be to God there was Cardinal Schönborn there who is a great theologian, and he clarified things.”
Once again Pope Francis praises Cardinal Schönborn, who presented Amoris when it was released and was designated by Pope Francis as an “authoritative interpreter” of the document. As with the communion for politicians issue, this is a responsibility he entrusts to the discernment of pastors, who best know how to respond to the needs of their people.
Stefano Maria Paci of Sky Tg 24 asked about same-sex marriage: “The news just arrived yesterday from the European Parliament, that they are inviting Member States to recognize same sex marriage and related parental relationships. Holy Father, what is your thought about this?”
The pope responded:
“I have spoken clearly about this, no? Marriage is a sacrament. Matrimony is a sacrament. The Church has no power to change the sacraments as the Lord has instituted them. There are laws that try to help the situations of many people who have a different sexual orientation. And this is important, that people be helped…but without imposing things that, but its nature, don’t go in the Church. But if they want to bear life together, a homosexual couple, the States have the possibility, civilly, to support them, to give them an assurance regarding inheritance, healthcare, but… The French have a law regarding this, not only for homosexuals, but for all people who want to associate themselves together. But marriage as a sacrament is clear, it is clear. But that there be civil laws that… three widows, for example, who want to join together by law to have health services, to have a bit of inheritance among them, they do these things. This is the French PACS [editor: civil solidarity pact] this law, I don’t know it well… it has nothing to do with homosexual couples; that homosexual couples use it, can use it, but matrimony as a sacrament is between man and woman. Sometimes, as I was saying, confusion is created. Yes, we must…everyone is equal, respect everyone: The Lord is good and will save everyone. Don’t say this out loud [laughs], but the Lord desires that everyone be saved, but please, don’t make the Church deny her truth. Many, many people with a homosexual orientation approach the sacrament of penance to seek counsel from priests and the Church helps them move forward in their own lives, but the sacrament of marriage is something else.”
Once again, Pope Francis seems to be endorsing the “San Francisco solution,” which provides for civil union arrangements between persons, regardless of their sexuality and the specifics of their relationship, but, by its nature, would also provide benefits for those in homosexual relationships. Meanwhile, he reiterates the Catholic teaching on marriage and the need for the Church to remain true to her doctrine on marriage and to remain free from coercion by the state: “The Lord desires that everyone be saved, but please, don’t make the Church deny her truth.”
Pope Francis is trying to strike that difficult but necessary balance between justice and mercy with the LGBT community. He understands, and is trying to put into practice the idea that we must both remain faithful to the Gospel and be gratuitous in extending God’s mercy to all.
Image: Vatican Media
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.