Pope Francis’ Recent Words on Communion and His Own Practice Reveal a Potential Lesson for Bishops

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father’s words during the inflight press conference from Slovakia have to be read very closely, as he chooses them very carefully.

Pope Francis speaks with journalists aboard an airplane from Bratislava, Slovakia, to Rome on Sept. 15.
Pope Francis speaks with journalists aboard an airplane from Bratislava, Slovakia, to Rome on Sept. 15. (photo: TIZIANA FABI / AFP via Getty Images)

“I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone!”

That line from the airborne press conference of Pope Francis, returning from Slovakia, ricocheted around the world, to the effect that the Eucharist should not be denied to people in grave sin or who persist in advancing public policies that promote grave evils. More to the point, given that the question related explicitly to President Joe Biden, the papal answer was interpreted in light of current debates in the United States.

Caution is in order. The Holy Father’s words have to be read very closely, as he chooses them very carefully, as one might expect of a well-trained Jesuit. 


Not True, But Not Lying

Recall that in an recent interview with a Catholic radio station in Spain, COPE, Pope Francis was directly asked about whether he would meet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Budapest. He answered that he did not know who was coming to the meeting, which at face value, was an obvious untruth. The participation of Orbán in the meeting had been the subject of months of negotiation, as Pope Francis clearly did not want to meet him, but eventually gave in to the diplomatic niceties. Pope Francis absolutely knew that he would meet Orbán.

So did Pope Francis lie? No. He just carefully said that he didn’t know who was coming to the meeting. After all, he wouldn’t know the names of the photographers, translators, the aides presenting the gifts. “Mental reservation” in papal interviews is a novel pastoral practice, to be sure, but needs to be kept in mind when interpreting them.


It Has Never Happened

The full answer of Pope Francis was that he has never denied Holy Communion to anyone because the situation the questioner posed has never happened to him:

"I don’t know if anyone has come in these conditions! This even as a priest. I have never been conscious of having a person like the one you describe in front of me, that is true."

So Pope Francis has never denied anyone Holy Communion for public, persistent grave sins because no such person has ever come before him. Simple enough.


An Expected Answer

Such an answer would be expected. After all, the number of priests who have ever denied anyone Holy Communion would be infinitesimally small, if speaking about the moment when someone presents himself for Holy Communion during Mass. The usual pastoral approach would to be speak privately with someone who should not receive Holy Communion, advising that he should not seek to receive. 

Now, if Pope Francis, in more than 50 years a priest, has never had that sort of conversation with anyone, it would be surprising, and a likely dereliction of priestly duty to safeguard the sacraments and attend to the salvation of souls. But he wasn’t asked about that specifically. It is quite likely, given what the Holy Father has said in other circumstances, that he has had those conversations.


What About Biden?

Pope Francis specifically said he would not address the American debate, but we can be quite sure that he thinks that politicians with positions like President Biden should not present themselves for Holy Communion. In a 2010 interview book when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said this:

"It is true that among parishioners there are persons who have killed not only intellectually or physically but indirectly, with improper management of capital, paying unjust wages. There are members of charitable organizations who do not pay their employees what they deserve, or make them work off the books. [...] With some of them we know their whole résumé, we know that they pass themselves off as Catholics but practice indecent behaviors of which they do not repent. For this reason, on some occasions I do not give Communion, I stay back and let the assistants do it, because I do not want these persons to approach me for a photo. One may also deny Communion to a known sinner who has not repented, but it is very difficult to prove these things. Receiving Communion means receiving the body of the Lord, with the awareness of forming a community. But if a man, rather than uniting the people of God, has devastated the lives of many persons, he cannot receive Communion, it would be a total contradiction." 

So if that is what the Holy Father thinks about unjust wages, what would he think about promoting abortion, given that his words on the plane from Slovakia were unequivocal?

"It’s homicide, whoever has an abortion, kills. No mincing words. Take any book on embryology for medical students. … It is a human life, this human life must be respected, this principle is so clear! To those who cannot understand, I would ask this question: Is it right to kill a human life to solve a problem? Is it right to hire a hitman to kill a human life? Scientifically, it is a human life. Is it right to take it out to solve a problem? That is why the Church is so harsh on this issue, because if it accepts this, it is as if it accepts daily murder."


Holy Communion … But Not From Me

The 2010 answer also explains an unusual practice of Pope Francis. At his papal Masses, as he often did when in Buenos Aires, he administers Holy Communion to the deacons and others serving at the altar, but does not give Holy Communion to the lay faithful, suspecting that some of them are seeking the presumed approbation of receiving Holy Communion from the archbishop/pope.

It is a liturgically strange practice, to celebrate the Holy Mass and not personally nourish at least some of the congregation with the Eucharist, but it is the Holy Father’s preferred practice.

Addressing who gives Holy Communion rather neatly sidesteps the question of who should receive it, and is in perfect conformity with the answer, “I have never refused the Eucharist.” If a bishop doesn’t administer it, he cannot refuse it.

There are analogous practices elsewhere. More than a few cathedrals seat the public officials together and then, at the time for Holy Communion, the bishop goes to a different place, leaving the prominent officials to another priest or deacon.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago attempted something like this last month at the funeral of a police officer. With the mayor in the front pew, a non-Catholic in a same-sex civil marriage, Cardinal Cupich spontaneously asked another priest, police chaplain Father Dan Brandt, to take his place in distributing Holy Communion. The mayor was first in line and Father Brandt gave her Holy Communion. Afterwards, when he realized what happened, he apologized for his mistake, explaining that he was flustered when Cardinal Cupich handed off the matter to him at the last moment.

What then does Pope Francis really think — as opposed to what he carefully said — about Holy Communion for President Biden and others? 

While he has never faced that situation, people who have “devastated the lives of many persons cannot receive Communion,” and that one partial solution is for bishops not to distribute Holy Communion at all.