Pope Francis’ Silence Speaks Volumes on Controversial Communion Vote by US Bishops
Pope Francis’ Silence Speaks Volumes on Controversial Communion Vote by US Bishops
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Saturday put a founder of the European Union on the track to sainthood, told Roman deacons to take care of the poor and met with a top prelate who once defended him against wild allegations by the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States.
But the most telling thing he did was stay quiet about the extraordinary vote by America’s Roman Catholic bishops to move ahead — despite the warning of the pope’s top doctrinal official — with the drafting of new guidance that conservatives hope will eventually deny communion to President Biden for his support of abortion rights.
The pope said nothing, church officials and experts said, because there is nothing else to say.
The divergence of the conservative American church from Francis’ agenda is now so apparent as to become unremarkable, and Vatican officials and experts said Saturday that the pope’s silence also underlined just how unsurprising the American vote, made public on Friday, was to the Vatican.
The deeply conservative American bishops conference has already flouted a remarkably explicit letter from the Vatican in May urging it to avoid the vote. It has disregarded years of the pope’s pleas to de-emphasize culture war issues and expand the scope of its mission to climate change, migration and poverty.
On Friday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted in a large majority at an often bitter virtual meeting to begin drafting guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist. That guidance could become a vehicle for conservative leaders in the U.S. church to push for denying communion to prominent Catholics like Mr. Biden who support abortion rights.
But the public silence at the Vatican on Saturday, the officials said, also reflected that the pope and his top officials remained confident that the American conservatives would never actually pass such a doctrinal declaration on banning communion.
Church law says for that to happen, the bishops’ conference would need either unanimous support, which is essentially impossible, or two-thirds support and the Vatican’s approval.
“It’s not going to get to that point,” said one senior Vatican official with knowledge of the thinking inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s doctrinal watchdog. “It’s inconceivable.”
President Biden, when asked about the vote yesterday, had a similar view.
“That’s a private matter,” he told reporters. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
The greatest threat posed by Friday’s vote was to the unity of the American church itself, and not to Mr. Biden and other Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights.
The vote to go ahead and draft new guidance on the issue guarantees that it will stay in the political bloodstream, and grow only more potent as the American bishops’ doctrine committee works on the guidance ahead of a planned November meeting.
And officials and clergy close to Francis worried that the communion document could be used as a wedge issue to get Republican voters to the ballot box, as much as to put Catholics in the pews.
Several experts said that ultimately, they expected a document that strongly asserted the importance of the Eucharist, one of the most sacred rituals in Christianity, but that would reflect the pope’s concerns and not explicitly call for denying communion to Mr. Biden and other influential political and cultural figures who support abortion rights.
The feeling in the Vatican is that the status quo will prevail, and that discretion on communion will be left to individual bishops. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington has made it clear that he will not deny the president communion.
“I don’t think they are worried in Casa Marta,” Paolo Rodari, a Vatican reporter at Rome’s La Repubblica newspaper, said referring to the pope’s residence.
But there remains among Francis’ allies in the Vatican a concern that the conservatives who dominate the conference will use the rite of communion as a political weapon, setting a bad global precedent for the politicization of a church that Francis wants to keep above the fray.
The real motivation of the May letter by the pope’s top doctrinal official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the Vatican official said, was to avoid that and the weakening, dividing and politicizing of the American church by preserving unity among its bishops.
That clearly failed.
Francis has repeatedly argued that collegial dialogue between bishops is key to lasting reform in the church.
Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Francis, pointed out that even when bishops called to Rome voted overwhelmingly to ordain some married men as priests in remote locations, a position championed by liberals and opposed by conservatives, Francis did not ratify it, because, the biographer said, of the polarization the debate revealed. (Some of the pope’s disappointed backers thought he simply folded under conservative pressure.)
While he doesn’t expect unanimity among his bishops, the pope does want a convergence of opinion, Mr. Ivereigh said.
“For Francis, a majority vote by a deeply divided bishops’ conference is not a sign that one should proceed, but the opposite,” he said. He added that, on substance, the vote by American bishops on Friday — with 73 percent in favor of drafting guidance and 24 percent opposed — was clearly not aligned with the pope’s priorities.
“Francis has been consistent in his message to the American bishops: ‘Don’t get trapped in culture wars and give a witness of unity,’” Mr. Ivereigh said. “I don’t think this vote does that.”
On Saturday in the Hall of Blessings in the Apostolic Palace, Francis reasserted his priorities. When a group of Roman deacons asked him what he wanted from them, he responded, “humility,” and urged them to put themselves “at the service of the poor.”
As the deacons left the meeting and walked out onto St. Peter’s Square, several said that they had never heard of an Italian priest denying communion to a politician for any reason and that there was a clear divide between politics, which belonged in Parliament, and faith, which belonged in church.
“We’ve never sent a person away from communion,” said Rafaelle Grasso, a deacon at a parish in Rome. “It never ever happens here.”
Throughout much of Europe and Latin America, it is essentially unthinkable for bishops to deny communion to politicians who publicly support abortion rights. John Paul II famously offered communion to Francesco Rutelli, a former mayor of Rome and candidate for prime minister who supported abortion rights.
“Almost all of the bishops of the world at this moment look at the United States church,” said Mr. Ivereigh, “and wonder, ‘What is going on?’”
The American effort is “a very dangerous initiative” said Alberto Melloni, a church historian in Rome who said the Vatican had long abandoned the notion that the Catholic Church’s job is to guide politics.
Francis, on the papal plane in September 2019, acknowledged the sharp opposition he has faced from conservative Catholic detractors in the United States. Presented with a book that explored the ties of conservative American bishops to a well-financed and media-backed American effort to undermine his pontificate, Francis responded that it was “an honor that the Americans attack me.”
Asked in another flight to expand on the sustained opposition he faced from Catholic conservatives in the United States, Francis said, “I pray there are no schisms,” adding, “But I’m not scared.”
Friday’s vote showed that not much had changed. Those ideologically driven American bishops “are still against him,” said Nicolas Senèze, the French Vatican reporter who had presented Francis with his book, “How America Wanted to Change the Pope.”
“They are still against the reform of the church that Francis wants and they still continue to be on the same political agenda of the Republican Party,” he added. “The American church is as divided as the people of the United States.”
From even before President Biden’s inauguration, conservative bishops seemed intent on a showdown with him.
In November 2020, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whom Francis has repeatedly declined to elevate to the rank of cardinal, wrote a letter warning Mr. Biden that his position on abortion rights created a “difficult and complex situation.” Support for abortion rights among prominent politicians “who profess the Catholic faith” the archbishop wrote, “creates confusion among the faithful about what the Catholic Church actually teaches on these questions.”
The archbishop then formed a working group on the issue. On Inauguration Day, Archbishop Gomez greeted the new president with a long statement warning that “our new president has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils.”
The Vatican, on the other hand, sent a congratulatory telegram urging the president to pursue policies “marked by authentic justice and freedom.”
In the end, Mr. Senèze said, Francis understood that only time would change the composition of the American Bishops conference and put the American church in alignment with Rome.
“There has to be a biological solution,” he said. “Francis has to wait for them to retire.”