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Pope Francis, “estranged” Catholics, and holy communion

To receive the Eucharist is more than an expression of personal piety. It is a statement of one’s full communion with the Church.

Eucharistic adoration following the pope's Corpus Christi Mass June 14, 2020. (Image: Vatican Media/CNA)

Certain Catholic media platforms that often function as de facto extensions of Jen Psaki’s White House Press Office have continually urged the U.S. bishops to dodge the issue of pro-abortion Catholic politicians receiving holy communion. Pope Francis, for his part, offered some helpful comments on this contentious matter during a September press conference, held as he was returning to Rome from a visit to Hungary and Slovakia. “Those who are not in the community cannot receive communion,” the Pope said, speaking of the unbaptized and those “who are estranged” from the Church.

Exactly. And that is the key ecclesial fact in play when Catholic political leaders willfully promote elective abortion — just as it was when Catholic public officials refused to desegregate schools in their jurisdictions. In both instances, the men and women in question deny, by their actions, an essential truth of Catholic faith: the inalienable dignity of every human person. Their actions publicly declare that they are not in full communion with the Church.

That is the objective reality; it is not a judgment on the subjective culpability or moral condition of a given public official. No minister of holy communion can know with certainty that that public official is in a state of mortal sin when he or she approaches the altar to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. The official in question may be ill-catechized, or invincibly ignorant, or cognitively impaired.

But the subjective moral condition of the pro-abortion politician — Is this person in a state of mortal sin? — is not the crux of the matter. And the question of the reception of holy communion by Catholic politicians promoting abortions shouldn’t be framed in those terms.

What the minister of holy communion can know, for it would be impossible not to know, is that a Catholic public official who promotes what the Pope (in that same press conference) called the “homicide” of the unborn is objectively in a state of serious estrangement from the Church, whatever his or her personal moral condition or canonical status. Those who are seriously estranged from the Church remain members of the Church by reason of their baptism. But they ought not act as if they were in full communion with the Church.

This discussion has focused almost exclusively on bishops, priests, and other ministers of holy communion denying the sacrament to wayward politicians. That, too, is the wrong focus, at least initially. Those not in full communion with the Church — those who, by their public actions, have demonstrated their rejection of an essential truth of Catholic faith — should have the integrity not to present themselves for reception of the Eucharist. The first burden of obligation rests on those men and women.

To recognize this, however, is not to suggest that pastors have no obligations; quite the contrary. As Pope Francis also said, the first obligation of pastors is to try to help objectively estranged Catholics — people “temporarily outside the community,” as the Pope put it — come to understand the truth of their situation: that they are not in full communion with the Church and should not act at Mass as if they were. If, after appropriate instruction undertaken with charity and clarity, the objectively estranged Catholic continues, by public actions, to reject certain truths that identify a Catholic, a responsible pastor has the obligation to instruct that person not to present himself or herself for holy communion. For as the bishops of Latin America, led by the future pope, said in 2007, public officials who encourage “grave crimes” against life “cannot receive holy communion.”

To get down to cases: I have no way of knowing whether President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and other Catholic public officials actively promoting abortion are in a state of mortal sin. Multiple factors are involved in committing a mortal sin. What I do know — because President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and those Catholic public officials actively promoting elective abortions have told me so by their actions — is that these men and women are objectively in a defective state of communion with the Church. That estrangement, to borrow the Pope’s term, is of such severity that they ought not present themselves for holy communion.

To receive the Eucharist is more than an expression of personal piety. It is a statement of one’s full communion with the Church. Making that clear, by instruction if possible and disciplinary action if necessary, is a pastoral obligation. “It is not,” Pope Francis said, “a punishment.” Nor is it “weaponizing” the Eucharist. It is calling the estranged to deeper conversion to Christ. That is what good shepherds do.


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About George Weigel 365 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

37 Comments

  1. Abortion is wrong, not because it violates some ephemeral “human dignity”, but because it violates the order that God has established for the created world. The attempt to conflate the gospel with the principles of humanism is a massive fail.

    • what?, G Poulin? The Beloved God Established/Ordered the creature, adam, male and female, He Created them, with His Divine Image and Likeness for their human dignity….this is not e-ffem-eral nor humanism, please stop poulin’g around, for this is the Reality of His Saving Gospel! Blessings

    • So true G.Poulin. Conflating the Divine Institution with Satan’s anti-church was made possible by Roncali, realized under Martini, contained under PPJP2 and PPBXVI, and exploded by the sons of Sankt Gallen. During this Eclipse of the Bride of Christ we have the first fruits of the C6 Politbureau persecution of PPBXVI; Summorum Pontificum will thrive during the Sankt Gallen usurption of Rome.

  2. Do we or do we not, as Catholics, believe that in the Eucharist Christ is truly present? If we do, then to receive Communion when not in the state of grace is to commit mortal sin, to effectively damn ourselves. It is to profoundly abuse the God Who is at that moment, in effect, at our mercy. It is disturbing that so many Catholics don’t understand this and that so many clergy are unwilling to defend either the Eucharist or the souls of their parishioners.

  3. I care about saving babies. These politicians are an impediment to that goal. How many young people, hungry to justify a morally bankrupt lifestyle, seize upon these politicians fallacious remarks, and proceed to the abortion mill? In Nov. the USCCB will be faced with a monumental decision on this issue. I sincerely pray that they draw a line in the sand. For as often said, dear Bishops, if you are not with me, you are against me. Please, get on the right side, and please, show leadership.

  4. “If, after appropriate instruction undertaken with charity and clarity, the objectively estranged Catholic continues, by public actions, to reject certain truths that identify a Catholic, a responsible pastor has the obligation to instruct that person not to present himself or herself for holy communion.” If Francis is a responsible pastor, he instructed Nancy Pelosi during their recent encounter in Rome and will so instruct Joe Biden when he visits with the pope on October 29. To do otherwise would be dereliction of his duty as the head of the universal Church.

      • MAL, and he condemned young people who attend mass – especially in latin – as rigid, told young people who share the good news it is the (new Bergoglioian) sin of Proselytism,and tried to closr down the Catholic latin mass. Yes, Mal, Pope Francis HAS IN DEED made his message loud and clear Catholicism is a Sin. Freemasonry is IN.

  5. The counterargument will be offered by some, that one must balance the betrayal of human lives (not “life” as an abstraction) against the good that is supposedly done—public spending in support of the common good. (One is reminded that in the early stages of the updated Catechism, a “fruit of the Council,” there were those who wanted to include the Beatitudes more while peripheralizing and eliminating the Commandments.)

    The peripheralized and no-longer-mentioned Veritatis Splendor (VS) and the Catechism itself explain the fit between the Commandments and the Beatitudes: “…the commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken” (VS, n. 52).

    Broken (!), not averaged together with other stuff, as under the false Fundamental Option, or “consequentialism,” or “proportionalism.”

    • conflating free will with the right to end a life, is a mental depravity so glaring that anyone who knows the history of western civilization understands, recognizes, the sophistry. pray for the end of intrinsic evil as a “choice” and the protection of all life, including yours prior to your birth

    • To be pro choice is to be pro abortion. To think otherwise is simply self-deception. There is no moraj justification for destroying life for the sake of covenience.

  6. Yes, a politician who promotes abortion should refrain from Holy Communion (Canon 916). But, that is not happening. That is when Canon 915 kicks in. Ministers of Holy Communion should not give it to those who persist in manifest grave sin. Canon law has to do with actions not interior disposition, as Mr. Weigel alluded to. All of this “must give them instructions first” is a lot of kicking the can down the road. When you are in your 70’s and have been a Catholic all of your life,, you know the Church’s teaching on abortion.

    As to the pope’s help on this, he did say that abortion is homicide. However, it is an old saying that you can tell more by a person’s actions than by his words. The pope just had a smiling, glad handing meeting with Pelosi, a promotor of this homicide, 10 days ago.

    And then, we have bishops and cardinals (i.e. Gregory and Cupich) that proclaim that they will give the Eucharist to prominent pro-abortion politicians. When this comes up for discussion in the bishops’ November meeting, individual bishop’s stance will, as the saying goes, separate the men from the boys.

    I hope that I am proven wrong, but I expect a wishy washy statement that everyone should be properly disposed to receive the Eucharist. Mr. Weigel rightly says that if instruction is not successful then disciplinary action is required. I don’t think we are likely to see anything like that out of the bishops’ November meeting, but maybe I will be surprised.

  7. Thank you Donna. Let him put his money where his mouth is as the saying goes. Because it will be a scandal meeting with both politicians and not have him chastise them, lovingly of course.

  8. Communion with the Church for Eucharistic communion with Christ, George Weigel’s position in agreement with Pope Francis is clearly tenable. Insofar as whether a congressman who openly defies Catholic doctrine should or must be refused communion, someone who approaches the priest during distribution is a difficult issue. Do we know whether this person has repented? Would refusal result in his complete apostasy? Weigel’s arguments on this are basically valid. Although I would add a state of manifest sin, whether or not only God knows the soul of a man, and the truth regarding invincible ignorance. Aquinas taught we’re guilty for not knowing what we should know [for invincible ignorance to maintain it must be beyond our capacity to know (ST 1a2ae 76, 2). Weigel somewhat paradoxically refers to that responsibility. Archbishop Olmsted, an excellent source, said as much recently. Nevertheless, George Weigel arrives at the same conclusion. Most of us are quite aware of a loosening trend within the Church. This is the heart of this issue that will not go away whatever the roundabout approach. Nothing apparent has been done by the Vatican. Let’s be entirely up front. What then is the Pontiff’s policy? What in actual fact does communion with the Church really mean for Pope Francis? A child should have no problem with the answer because they lack sophistication and judge only by the evidence. Personally, as I’m fully convinced all priests should be, I stand with Cardinal Raymond Burke on this, that priests have a serious obligation to address these issues faithfully according to the Catechism, as Weigel also commends. From the pulpit and anywhere else. Silence, as the Cardinal implores, places our soul in jeopardy. Faithful courage in this is a loving witness to Christ.

    • Part of what seems to be Pope Francis’ “policy” seems to be that separation of the life of faith from the life of actions can be more-or-less accommodated in practice. Yes?

      Contradicting the discarded (?) “Veritatis Splendor” which holds, clearly and instead, that “the fundamental orientation [faith] can be radically changed by particular acts” (n. 70).

      Pope John Paul II (as Karol Wojtyla) dealt with the same contemporary challenge of upholding doctrinal truths while at the same time trying to bridge to whatever is good in modern philosophy In his “The Acting Person” (1969/1979, a very daunting academic piece), the later pope explores “personalism” as a value in itself, and finds that we become who we are by acting morally—in specific instances—in accord with independent and objective moral values.

      Any appeal to action is to be correctly framed as an appeal to real self-determination and freedom together with others, and to objective morality to be upheld (not betrayed) in these actions. That is, we fulfill our very selves by acting morally, one day at a time, always as human BEINGS and in communion with other selves (“intersubjectivity”!)—rather than any more accommodating “policy.” What a consolation, to live reasonably and in grace even now.

      “The touchstone for discernment is the DYNAMIC SUBORDINATION OF ACTION TO TRUTH (italics) that is so essential for the person’s transcendence in the action.”

      This is a quite different message that collapsing the human calling and experience as toward secularist sociology, as in possible dilution of the former John Paul II Institute on the Family and Marriage into some mixture of the “Theology of the Body” with whatever the cat and statisticians drag in from peer-reviewed publishing factories down the street.

      And is quite different from peddling a generic Christianity, only, in horizontal partnership with all people of goodwill. Too many of those “other selves” are annihilated/unborn children. What “good will?” Which brings us back to Eucharistic coherence.

      • Interestingly, you reference the Acting Person, because it was included in my doctoral research. Husserlian phenomenology was an attempt to validate sensible perception, basically invalidated by Kant. Edmund Husserl formed a nucleus of that movement including Max Scheler, Edith Stein, and related Martin Heidegger at Gottingen. Karol Wojtyla became interested in the defense of Max Scheler, a Jewish convert to Catholicism [he was a primary principle in Stein’s conversion from atheism and previous Judaism] whose work was condemned by the German Catholic hierarchy. Wojtyla’s 2nd doctorate was dedicated to the defense of Scheler, an effort to justify Scheler’s ethics with Catholic doctrine. The Acting Person entered in the Analecta Husserliana was an effort to integrate the work of Scheler with Aquinas. Edith Stein an associate to Husserl wrote a short treatise The Problem of Empathy in which she identifies a perception spiritual in character of the other that is sui generis. Significant is this school of [existential] phenomenology that attempted to reconcile independent of Aquinas, Aquinas’ first principle of all knowledge, sensible perception. Edith Stein as you’re aware found our humanness exemplified in Christ, his essence in his embrace of the Cross. John Paul II made her canonization his personal interest, rightly so for the modern age. Her life speaks most coherently to what it means to be a person in the image of God.

      • And yes I agree with your response. There’s too much indication of an attempt at reconfiguration of the Person of Christ, to complete a purpose other than intensify our response to Him.

      • Also Peter, as a point of general knowledge the term ‘acting person’ was first used, and used extensively by Max Scheler as an ethical construct. An example, “Good is the value that is attached to the realization of a positive value in the sphere of willing. Evil is the value that is attached to the realization of a negative value in the sphere of willing. Goodness, however, is not simply attached to an act of willing, but originates ultimately within the disposition (Gesinnung) or basic moral tenor of the acting person” (Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values).

      • Dr. William E. May has two articles (No. 8840 and ?8841?) in the library at Catholic Culture, analyzing same. Dr. May also follows same (originating with Gregory of Nyassa (from Life of Moses, cited in VS. No. 71: “All things are subject to change and becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or for worse..Now human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew. But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as in the case with bodily beings…; it is the result of a free choice. Thus we are in a certain sense our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions.” Dr. May worked at the JPII Institute at CU in DC in its early heydey.

        Speaking of hey, that hay has burned, and the barn door has been locked.

    • It is true that only God knows the state of a man’s soul. Clerics are not asked to be God. Nor are they asked to use that as an excuse not to act in the face of obvious sin. Humans can base an intelligent and fairly accurate decision based on one’s visible actions. Its my opinion that the issue is NOT what the Bishops and Priests THINK about the actual state of a persons soul . Actions and words trumpeted in newspapers are OBVIOUS for all who WISH to see what a person believes. The clergy’s actions need to be as blunt as the sinner’s. If a public personality is outright advocating the most extreme political position on abortion possible, which lately has grown to include infanticide, its not our problem to worry if refusal of communion will drive them to “complete apostasy”. Its abundantly clear from their words and actions that they are already apostates. That is THEIR problem, their decision and a result of THEIR sinful actions. If in fact they have repented ( unlikely) they have an ability to speak to the priest before or after that particular Mass to discuss the matter. The cleric’s failure to act at all gives rise to grave scandal and most certainly results in lesser informed minds following the self justifying actions of the politician, rather than the church. We cant always concern ourselves with how many angels can dance on the head of a pin before making a thoughtful decision. In real life, the question is, if we fail to act, how many babies are killed? How many adult souls are thereby lost by resorting to baby killing??

      • You’re correct. A public person who openly promotes abortion and who persistently refuses to recant after consult with the priest [or bishop] must be refused Holy Communion by the priest, for his own salvation, and that of the said public person.

  9. In every era some segment of humanity is victimized by the bigotry of the times, leaving future generations wondering how people back then could have engaged in or even tolerated such outrageous treatment of their fellow human beings.

    It doesn’t take much integrity or courage to come down hard on the side of the innocent victims of the bigotry the establishment has finally rejected. (Don’t expect to receive a medal if today you boldly condemn the American slavery of the 19th century.) It is the bigotry currently entrenched in the establishment that requires moral integrity and courage to resist and condemn.

    The entrenched bigotry of our times is lethal to thousands of babies every day. It will be dispelled eventually.

    If history records that the U.S. bishops never mustered up the courage to refuse communion to those known by all to aggressively facilitate the murder of innocent children by the millions, that historical fact will scandalize Catholics for centuries.

    • There’s no need to wait for history and future generations. World laughs contemporary american bigotry and outrageous treatment of human beings right now. Think of the black man Fiston Ngoy raping woman in a train for more than half an hour while passengers refusing to help the poor woman. Or “devout Catholic” and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg who enjoys maternity leave with his “husband” and twins.

  10. Pro-choice sounds neutral but always turns out to be de facto pro-abortion, for some reason.
    I’ll stick with Elie Wiesel. “A vote for neutrality is always a vote for the oppressor”.

  11. God has not given anyone the “choice” to kill the unborn. Satan creates and gives you that choice. No one should support the sin of killing an unborn child if they are in communion with the magisterium of the church. And if they are not in communion, they should not act like they are by receiving the eucharist which is an act of communion. If they do, they are liars and all lies come from Satan, the king and source of lies. If one does, one is in communion, not with God’s church, but with Satan.

  12. I am getting tired of Weigel being a shill for Francis. Just a few months ago he wrote an essay asserting the stupidity of anyone who calls Francis a moral relativist since he repeats the silly remark about having an abortion is like hiring a hitman, which happens to be something a real pro-lifer would never say. We don’t malign troubled women. Weigel dismisses the idea of Francis as moral relativist despite his many episodes upholding such an attitude, not the least in Amoris Laetitia where Francis unambiguously denies that there are always implicit absolute moral norms to the negative precepts of the natural law, eternally binding on everyone, everywhere.

    Now Weigel digs out another cover-himself quote from Francis about Eucharistic purity, like he really means it, as though he has never made contrary remarks on other occasions in other moods. Whether Francis’ clear rejection of taking a position that Catholic Canon Law mandates towards politicians actively, unrepentantly, and gleefully committing the crime against humanity of the mass murder of the most innocent of lives, for the sake of being “pastoral,” or Francis speaking to an audience of Protestants regarding their joining in a Catholic Eucharist, trivializing the exclusivity of the Sacred event with the remarks, “life is greater than explanations and interpretations,” Weigel always finds ways to make Francis seem to not be the loose cannon of inconsistency that he is, a Pope who does massive damage that only another sometimes egotist would downplay into nonexistence.

      • Your sin of presumption that forms unfounded accusations in greater than your concern for the damage to God’s Church by the man who renounced the title of Vicar of Christ and the victims of his continuing assaults on God’s immutable truth.

        • “the man who renounced the title of Vicar of Christ and the victims of his continuing assaults on God’s immutable truth.”
          Could you provide some real evidence?

  13. Mr. Weigel is defending the U.S. Bishops (with exceptions made for those few who have made a courageous stand, like Cardinal Burke) from charges that they and the Church are not serious about Holy Communion.

    The practice of admitting pro-abortion politicians to Holy Communion was orchestrated in a June 2004 deception by the His-Ex-Eminence McCarrick, in the treacherous event publicized by Fr. Neuhaus of First Things, where McCarrick withheld then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter reminding Bishops it was their duty to enforce Canon 915, and withold Holy Communion from persons who present themselves for Communion in a situation of “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.”

    You can read any one of dozens of articles about this, for example, here:
    https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/continuing-scandal-mccarrick-doctrine/

    The very fact that Mr. Weigel and all of us write and read this article is evidence that we, and honest Bishops like Cardinal Burke, all know that men and women like Biden and Pelosi are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.”

    Canon 915 is about the duty of Bishops etc to withold Holy Communion in the above situation. The McCarrick Doctrine is about ensuring that Bishops etc DO NOT enforce Canon 915, and when pressed about the topic, insist that the responsibility should remain solely on the person presenting themselves, to refrain (which is Canon 916).

    No matter how he tries to spin it, Mr. Weigel is indeed trying to perpetuate The McCarrick Doctrine.

    Such an essay, defending such an abhorrent policy confected by the monstrously evil Cardinal Archbishop McCarrick, sends this message to our young Catholic children: The Church is NOT SERIOUS about Holy Communion.

    There is simply no avoiding that.

    The essay is promoting the McCarrick Doctrine of Holy Communion.

    Fr. Mankowski would say, I am sure, that this cancer must be healed by surgery (not nutrition).

  14. I have found Francis’ hitman analogy to abortion to be intriguing ever since I first heard him use it. It just seems strange that he should frame the issue in in such terms. Perhaps it is unintentionally revealing as to the milieu from which he emerged.

  15. These politicians should not receive communion. If they vote theirfaith, as real Catholics abortion would be gone. However, it is a multi-billion dollar business and most of these politicians receive some of that money. Money makes the world go round, even in th Church?

  16. Should not Biden, Pelosi, Durbin, et. al., shout from the rooftops daily their utter repudiation of their advocacy of the horror of abortion, just as they have shouted the opposite for so long before they are given the Eucharist? Anything less is a fraud.

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