Pope Francis told bishops to guide pro-choice politicians “in the style of God.” What does this mean in practice?

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During his in-flight press conference on Wednesday following his trip to Hungary and Slovakia, Pope Francis answered a question from AmericaVatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell on giving Holy Communion to pro-choice politicians. What Pope Francis has not done, in fact what he has refused to do, is to settle the matter universally and definitively.

Instead, Pope Francis’ response had a three-part structure: 1) affirming moral teaching on the injustice of abortion; 2) to affirm that people can place themselves outside the community of the Church and thus make themselves incapable of worthy communion; 3) to emphasize that the controversies over whether to refuse Communion do not arise from disagreements over the theological principles of points one and two, but rather as a pastoral problem of how to apply them. Francis spent most of his response warning that failure to address this pastoral problem as pastors could lead the bishops to “take sides in politics”, which does not end well for the church.

What Pope Francis has not done, in fact what he has refused to do, is to settle the matter universally and definitively.

I have written about these problems twice already. In May, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a letter recommending a process of extensive dialogue before the bishops of the United States attempt to give advice on the issue of communion to pro-choice politicians. At the time, I was explaining why, even if all bishops could agree to prohibit pro-choice politicians from taking Communion, such a policy would likely not achieve the political goal of strengthening support for anti-abortion laws. . In June, the bishops voted to move forward with drafting a document on Eucharistic Coherence without taking the time out of the recommended dialogue process. I then wrote that Catholics who come to opposing conclusions about whether pro-choice politicians should be denied Communion may both be motivated by a pastoral concern.

I think that my two previous analyzes are in agreement with the emphasis placed by Pope Francis on the pastoral problem posed by this question. Corn his answer highlighted two points that help me recognize how easy it is to fall into the trap of dealing with pastoral issues in a way that reduces them to political issues, while still believing that one acts as the truth demands. theological and moral.

First, Francis said that a pastor “must be a shepherd in the style of God”, which he described as “closeness, compassion and tenderness”. He added that this requirement applies even in a pastoral relationship to those who are excommunicated and pointed to scriptural illustrations of this divine “style”. At the end of his response, Francis again referred to the triad of closeness, compassion and tenderness and stated that these pastoral principles “come from theology, the pastoral is theology and the Holy Spirit, which leads you to [act pastorally] with the style of God.

What Pope Francis is emphasizing here is that closeness, compassion and tenderness are themselves theological truths about who God relates to human beings.

What Pope Francis is emphasizing here is that closeness, compassion and tenderness are not pastoral. constraints on the fervor with which other theological truths are announced but themselves theological truths about who God relates to human beings. Acting pastorally “in the manner of God” does not preclude speaking frankly about the moral truth of abortion as unjust violence and saying clearly, as Pope Francis did, “whoever performs an abortion kills” and that “accepting it is a bit like accepting murder on a daily basis.” Acting pastorally in God’s style does not mean relaxing those truths. Instead, it means finding ways to stay close, like the God made it, even with people who refuse or are unable to accept these moral truths.

Second, Pope Francis referred to casuistry and controversy over the discussion in “Amoris Laetitia»Pastoral support for divorced couples. (A group of theologians have gone so far as to accuse the Pope of heresy.) Because Francis never got involved in the uniquely American debate over whether President Biden should receive Communion – and even in yesterday’s response, he specifically avoided addressing the peculiarities of the Communion. American situation – I was initially intrigued by this reference to “Amoris Laetitia.” The problem here is where the American bishops are at odds with each other, not with the Pope, and it has nothing to do with it. to do with marriage.

But I realized on reflection that these two controversies both stem from mistrust of pastoral judgment rather than from formal theological disagreement. The theology of marriage in “Amoris Laetitia” is entirely in accordance with Catholic tradition. But some thought that his call to the pastoral accompaniment of divorced couples, with discernment according to individual circumstances, would be badly applied to undermine the teaching on the dignity of receiving communion. In other words, they were unwilling to trust pastors to apply a teaching, even if that teaching itself was not questioned.

Pope Francis has a broader – and I would also say more courageous – vision of what it means to be a pastor.

Likewise, in the current debate in the American church over pro-choice politicians receiving Communion, I think the issue is not a disagreement over the church’s teaching on abortion or that the rejection of this could have an impact on the dignity of receiving Communion. No bishop denies either of these statements. Rather, there is a tendency among some Catholics to treat pastoral judgments on the application of these teachings as tantamount to heresy if they are not strict enough.

Often, someone who takes this kind of position maintains that the theological principles involved are so clear that they admit only one practical conclusion: fellowship must be denied. So, anyone who disagrees must really be unwilling to fully accept the underlying theological claim rather than making pastoral judgments about how best to stay close to someone who rejects or resists parts of the religion. doctrine of the church, as they say. But thus clearly stated, the poisonous role of mistrust becomes evident. The conclusion drawn from distrust is effectively circular, ensuring that anyone who comes to a different pastoral judgment on a matter of sufficient importance must be assumed to reject a theological truth.

Pope Francis has a broader – and I would also say more courageous – vision of what it means to be a pastor. And I think this vision also allows bishops, as pastors, to disagree with one another on the best course to take, either in general or in particular concrete circumstances. Pope Francis calls pastors to trust in the Holy Spirit, who leads them to care for their flocks “in the style of God.” In doing so, he also reminds the whole Church that it is God, first and foremost, who extends to us “the closeness, the compassion and the tenderness” which must shape the pastoral care of the Church, in particular for those who seem to wander far from the herd.


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