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urbi et orbi

Pope urges U.S. bishops to be 'pastors,' not 'politicians' on abortion, pokes vaccine 'deniers' in the Catholic hierarchy

Pope Francis fielded questions from reporters Wednesday on his flight back to Rome from a trip to Hungary and Slovakia, including a question about the push by some conservative Catholic prelates to deny Holy Communion to President Biden, America's second Catholic president. He did not directly answer whether he believes politicians who support the legal right to abortion should be denied Communion, generally or in the U.S., but he strongly suggested he isn't in favor of treating the Eucharist that way.

The pope reiterated that Communion is "not a prize for the perfect" but rather "a gift of the presence of Jesus in the church" and said he personally has "never refused the Eucharist to anyone," even an old lady who told him afterward that he was Jewish. "The Lord wanted to reward her without my knowledge," he added. Francis reiterated the Catholic teaching that abortion is "murder" but said priests and bishops should respond to abortion rights supporters with "closeness, compassion, and tenderness," as God would. "Be pastors, and not go condemning," he said.

"Whenever the church, in order to defend a principle, didn't do it pastorally, it has taken political sides," Francis said, pointing to the Inquisition-era heresy condemnation of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in Rome. "If a pastor leaves the pastorality of the church, he immediately becomes a politician." 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 168-55 in June to have a committee draft a "teaching document" on the Eucharist that some hope to use to rebuke Biden and other Democratic politicians who support abortion rights. They will next consider the issue at a conference in November. It's "fairy clear" Francis is encouraging the bishops "not to use Communion as a weapon against particular politicians for particular issues," says University of Notre Dame history professor John McGreevy.

Pope Francis also reiterated his strong support for getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and urged compassion for the vaccine-hesitant. "It is a bit strange because humanity has a history of friendship with vaccines," he said. Almost everyone in the Vatican is vaccinated, he added, but "even in the College of Cardinals there are some deniers, and one of those poor people is hospitalized with the virus." 

The pope did not name names, but Reuters points out that U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, a vaccine skeptic and Francis critic, is recuperating from a very serious case of COVID-19.