Pope Francis weighed in Wednesday on a debate roiling the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, where conservative bishops want to deny Communion to politicians, like President Joe Biden, who support abortion rights.
“I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone,” Francis said, although he added that he did not know of any instance when such a politician had come to him for Communion.
Bishops should be pastors, he said, not politicians.
It was the closest the pope has come to addressing the issue head-on, although the Vatican in June warned conservative bishops in the United States against their push to deny Communion to Biden, who is only the second Roman Catholic to be president. Francis left little doubt about his view.
“If we look at the history of the church, we will see that every time the bishops have not managed a problem as pastors, they have taken sides on a political front,” he told reporters on his plane as he returned from a four-day trip to Slovakia and Hungary.
He cited a history of atrocities committed in the name of the faith when the church became involved in politics.
“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.
“Communion is not a prize for the perfect,” Francis said, echoing statements he has made in the past, although not specifically in the context of politics or the United States. Arguing that the church must 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 restated the Catholic position that abortion is homicide.
“It’s more than a problem — it’s murder,” he said, speaking in Italian. “Whoever has an abortion kills, no half words.
“It is a human life,” he added. “This human life must be respected — this principle is so clear.”
Despite warnings from Rome, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted in June to draw up guidelines for administering the Eucharist, which conservatives hope can be the basis for refusing it to politicians who favor abortion rights. Once drafted, the proposed guidelines are expected to be put to a vote of the bishops in November, with two-thirds approval needed for adoption.
The issue has become one of the deepest rifts within the church in the United States, as well as between the U.S. church and the Vatican. With an observant, liberal Catholic in the White House, some leading U.S. prelates want to draw a harder line on abortion, making opposition to it a more central requirement of the faith.
The pope’s comments Wednesday came as abortion has once again moved front and center in the politics of both the United States and Mexico.
This month, the nation’s most restrictive abortion law went into effect in Texas, and the Biden administration has gone to court to try to block it. And the Supreme Court is scheduled to take up a Mississippi abortion law in a case that anti-abortion campaigners hope will overturn the abortion rights precedents set by Roe v. Wade in 1973 and subsequent rulings.
Mexico’s Supreme Court last week handed down a ruling that decriminalized abortion in the country.
Francis was not asked about, and did not address, the U.S. or Mexican legal actions.
He spoke candidly about other issues, though, including the rise of antisemitism — it “is making a resurgence, it is fashionable, it is an ugly, ugly thing” — and his brief encounter Sunday with Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, noting that the Hungarian leader’s anti-immigrant policies had not come up in their interaction.
Asked about the European Parliament’s resolution this month that calls on member states to recognize same-sex marriages contracted in the European countries where such unions are possible, Francis reiterated that marriage was a sacrament and that there were civil laws to “help the situation of many people who have different sexual orientation.”
The pope, who has taken a notably tolerant stand on gay people compared with his predecessors, spoke 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 make the church deny its truth.”
Francis also reiterated his belief that coronavirus vaccinations were critical after being asked about Christians in Slovakia being divided over inoculation. He made an apparent reference to a U.S. cardinal, Raymond Burke, who spread vaccine misinformation and then was treated for COVID-19 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“Even in the College of Cardinals,” Francis said, “there are some anti-vaxxers, and one of them, poor man, is in hospital with the virus. Life is ironic.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.