Abortion and the Eucharist: What did the pope just say?

A Pillar Explainer

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During the return flight from his recent trip to Hungary and Slovakia, Pope Francis on Wednesday fielded press questions on the issue of holy communion for Catholic politicians who promote legal protection for abortion.

So what did the pope say? What does the Church say? And what’s the context? The Pillar explains:

What Pope Francis said

“Those who are not in the community, cannot receive communion,” Francis told reporters on Wednesday.  “Out of the community: excommunicated. It’s a harsh word, but they don’t belong in the community, because they were not baptized, or because they are estranged from it.”

The pope made the comments while discussing the Church’s absolute prohibition of abortion, which, Francis said, is always the taking of an innocent human life.

Abortion is “more than a ‘problem.’” said Francis: “It’s a homicide. No middle terms. Whomever does an abortion, kills.” The pope went on to say that for the Church to countenance legal abortion as morally acceptable would be for the Church to accept “daily homicide.”

Catholic politicians who champion legal protections for abortion do not present a theological problem to be addressed, the pope explained, because the theology of the issue is “simple.”

Instead, he said, the question is how to deal in a pastoral context with such politicians.

“The problem is pastoral, how do we, as bishops, manage this principle,” he said. “If we look at the history of the Church, we will see that every time the bishops acted not as pastors in a problem, they became politicians.” 

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Francis stressed that his answers were meant to address general principles, and should not be applied to specific politicians in the United States because, he said, he didn’t know the details of individual cases. But, he said, pastoral action does not mean ignoring the problem of abortion, or those Catholics who support it.

“And what should the pastor do? He shouldn’t go around condemning. And he must also be a pastor with those who are excommunicated, and be so with God’s style, which is closeness, compassion and tenderness.”

“Those people who are not in the community cannot take communion, because they are out of the community,” the pope continued. “It is not a punishment: Communion is linked to the community.”

The focus, he said, should not be on labeling individuals as “excommunicated,” but instead considering them to be people “temporarily outside of the community” who remain “children of God and need our pastoral action and they want, and need, our pastoral closeness. Then the pastors work things out by the Spirit of God.”

The pope said that he had not personally denied the Eucharist to a politician supportive of abortion protections, but that he was not aware that any had presented themselves to him for holy communion.

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What does the Church’s law say?

Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law says that “those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

With regard to abortion, the canon can be applied to two different groups, both of whom the pope seemed to reference in his remarks.

The first group, “those who have been excommunicated,” can pertain to Catholics who have “procured a completed abortion.” 

That group would include doctors and nurses who perform abortions, mothers who undergo them, and others who pay for them or otherwise participate directly in particular abortions. If they meet certain conditions, such Catholics can be subject to a latae sententiae, or “automatic” excommunication. If the excommunication is declared by their bishop, it would require they be prohibited from the Eucharist.

Canon 915 can also apply to politicians who advocate for permissive abortion laws, if a pastor or diocesan bishop judges their advocacy is “obstinate” — which means they have been warned or exhorted to change their behavior, and they have not done so.

Prohibiting such persons from receiving the Eucharist is not meant to be a permanent measure; it is instead intended to call them to repentance, while at the same time clarifying that such advocacy is as a rupture from ecclesial communion.

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained to U.S. bishops that:

Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person's formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church's teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

“When ‘these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,’ and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, ‘the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it’.”

This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgement on the person's subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person's public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.

That advice seems to be consistent with the pope’s remarks on Wednesday — namely, that the issue should be addressed between a pastor — which can include a diocesan bishop, the chief pastor of his diocese —  and a particular Catholic.

The pope’s Wednesday remarks also seem consistent with a 2007 document from South American bishops, which was mostly written by Pope Francis. That document explains that:

We hope that legislators, heads of government, and health professionals, conscious of the dignity of human life and of the rootedness of the family in our peoples, will defend and protect it from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia... We must adhere to ‘Eucharistic coherence,’ that is, be conscious that they cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals.


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What’s the context of the pope’s remarks?

Francis was responding to questions from the English-speaking press, which came in reference to ongoing debate among U.S. Church leaders over the situation of President Joe Biden, who is Catholic.

For decades, Biden maintained that he personally accepted the Church’s teaching on the dignity of human life from the moment of conception, and on abortion, but said he did not believe in imposing his “personal” beliefs on others through public policy. 

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden adopted a more stridently pro-abortion stance, promising to enshrine the full scope of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into federal law, and to allow federal funding for abortion.

In recent weeks, the president has expressed even more concrete support for abortion, and reversed his long-standing affirmation that life begins at conception.

Responding to a state law in Texas banning abortion from the point at which a fetal heartbeat can be detected, Biden said he does not agree with those who believe that life begins at conception.

The president has directed a “whole-of- government response” to oppose the Texas law and enshrine legal protections for abortion.

Biden’s bishop in Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, told a press event last week that the president’s approach to the issue was not “demonstrating Catholic teaching.” 

During months of debate over politicians and the Eucharist, some U.S. bishops have said that prohibiting politicians from holy communion “weaponizes” the Eucharist, while others have said that prohibiting them is a measure of responsible Church governance, or even an act of charity.

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone wrote a column in the Washington Post last week calling for an unapologetic defense of human life from the moment of conception. The column compared episcopal intervention on abortion to U.S. bishops who sanctioned Catholics supportive of racial segregation.

The bishops’ conference is set to continue debate over the issue during their November meeting, at which a draft text will be subject to a vote. To date, bishops have said their text will mention that Catholics at odds with Catholic doctrine should not approach the Eucharist, but added that it will not mention whether bishops or pastors should actually prohibit some Catholics from doing so.

The U.S. bishops’ conference does not have the authority itself to prohibit anyone from receiving the Eucharist, which is a matter handled at the local level, as Pope Francis noted on Wednesday.

In a letter to USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez in May, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, acknowledged that some U.S. bishops wanted “to address the situation of Catholics in public office who support legislation allowing abortion, euthanasia or other moral evils.”

“The effective development of a policy in this area requires that dialogue occurs in two stages: first among the bishops themselves, and then between bishops and Catholic pro-choice politicians within their jurisdictions,” who retain ultimate individual responsibility for those in their dioceses, wrote the cardinal.

At the same time, Ladaria reminded the bishops that “The bishops should affirm as a Conference that ‘those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life.’”

The bishops “are also called to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism,” he said.

While the issue was raised Wednesday by English-speaking journalists, abortion became legal in Mexico this month after a federal court ruling on the issue. Efforts to liberalize abortion laws in other Latin and South American countries are also underway; in 2020 the federal legislature of the pope’s native Argentina legalized abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.