VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis on Saturday set a founder of the European Union on the path to holiness, told Roman deacons to care for the poor and met with a senior prelate who once defended him against allegations far-fetched from the former Vatican Ambassador to the United States.
But the most revealing thing he did was keep quiet about the extraordinary vote of the Roman Catholic Bishops in America to move forward – despite the warning from the Pope’s top doctrinal official – with the editorial staff. new guidelines that conservatives say will ultimately deny Communion to President Biden for his support for abortion rights.
The Pope said nothing, church officials and experts said, because there is nothing more to say.
The American conservative church’s divergence from Francis’ agenda is now so apparent that it is becoming commonplace, and Vatican officials and experts said on Saturday that the pope’s silence also underscores how important the US vote is. , released on Friday, was for the Vatican.
The deeply conservative American bishops’ conference already posted a remarkably explicit letter from the Vatican in May urging it to avoid the vote. He has ignored the pope’s calls for years to reduce the focus on cultural warfare issues and expand the reach of his mission to include climate change, migration and poverty.
On Friday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted by a large majority in an often bitter virtual meeting to begin drafting guidelines on the sacrament of the Eucharist. The advice could become a way for conservative American church leaders to lobby to deny communion to prominent Catholics like Mr. Biden who support the right to abortion.
But the public silence in the Vatican on Saturday, officials said, also reflected that the Pope and his senior officials remained convinced that American conservatives would never adopt such a doctrinal statement on the ban on communion.
Church law says that for this to happen, the bishops’ conference would need either unanimous support, which is essentially impossible, or two-thirds support and Vatican approval.
“It won’t happen at this point,” said a senior Vatican official with knowledge of thought within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church’s doctrinal watchdog. “It’s inconceivable.”
President Biden, when asked about yesterday’s vote, had a similar view.
“It’s a private matter,” he told reporters. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
The biggest threat posed by Friday’s vote was to the unity of the American church itself, not to Mr. Biden and other Catholic politicians who supported the right to abortion.
The vote to go ahead and write new guidance on the issue ensures that it will remain in political blood and only gain traction as the U.S. Bishops Doctrine Committee works on the guidance before a meeting scheduled for November.
And officials and clergy close to Francis feared the communion document could be used as a corner question to get Republican voters to the polls, as much as to put Catholics on the bench.
Several experts said that in the end, they were waiting for a document strongly affirming the importance of the Eucharist, one of the most sacred rituals in Christianity, but which would reflect the concerns of the Pope and not explicitly call for deny Communion to Mr. Biden and other influential politicians. and cultural figures who support abortion rights.
The feeling in the Vatican is that the status quo will prevail and that discretion over communion will be left to each bishop. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington has made it clear that he will not refuse the President’s Communion.
“I don’t think they are worried at Casa Marta,” Paolo Rodari, Vatican reporter for Rome’s La Repubblica newspaper, said, referring to the pope’s residence.
But there remains among Francis’ allies in the Vatican the fear that the conservatives who dominate the conference will use the rite of communion as a political weapon, setting a bad global precedent for the politicization of a church that Francis wants to keep above. of the melee.
The real motivation behind the May letter from the Pope’s highest doctrinal official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the Vatican official said, was to avoid this and the weakening, division and politicization of the American church by preserving unity among its bishops.
It clearly failed.
Francis has repeatedly maintained that collegial dialogue between bishops is the key to lasting reform of the Church.
Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Francis, pointed out that even when the bishops called to Rome voted overwhelmingly to ordain married men as priests in remote places, a position defended by liberals and fought by conservatives, Francis did not. not ratified, because, the biographer says, of the polarization revealed by the debate. (Some of the pope’s disappointed supporters thought he had simply bowed under conservative pressure.)
While he does not expect unanimity among his bishops, the Pope wants a convergence of opinions, Ivereigh said.
“For Francis, a majority vote of a deeply divided episcopal conference is not a sign that we must proceed, but the opposite,” he declared. He added that, on the merits, the US bishops’ vote on Friday – with 73% in favor of drafting the guidelines and 24% against – was clearly not aligned with the pope’s priorities.
“Francis has been consistent in his message to the American bishops: ‘Don’t get trapped in culture wars and bear witness to your unity,’” Mr. Ivereigh said. “I don’t think this vote does that.”
On Saturday in the Hall of Blessings of the Apostolic Palace, Francis reaffirmed his priorities. When a group of Roman deacons asked him what he wanted from them, he replied “humility” and urged them to “serve the poor”.
As the deacons left the meeting and made their way to St. Peter’s Square, several said they had never heard of an Italian priest denying Communion to a politician for any reason and that there was a clear divide between politics, which belonged to parliament, and faith, which belonged to the church.
“We have never taken anyone away from Communion,” said Rafaelle Grasso, deacon in a parish in Rome. “It never happens here.”
In much of Europe and Latin America, it is essentially unthinkable for bishops to deny communion to politicians who publicly support abortion rights. John Paul II offered communion to Francesco Rutelli, former mayor of Rome and candidate for prime minister who supported the right to abortion.
“Almost every bishops in the world right now is looking at the Church in the United States,” Mr. Ivereigh said, “and wondering, ‘What’s going on? “”
The American effort is “a very dangerous initiative,” said Alberto Melloni, a Church historian in Rome who said the Vatican had long since abandoned the idea that the job of the Catholic Church is to guide the Politics.
Francis, on the papal plane in September 2019, acknowledged the strong opposition he faced from conservative Catholic detractors in the United States. Presented with a book that explored the connections of conservative American bishops to a well-funded, media-backed American effort to undermine his pontificate, Francis replied that it was “an honor that Americans attack me.”
Asked in another flight to develop the sustained opposition he has faced from Catholic conservatives in the United States, Francis said: “I pray that there are no schisms,” adding: “But I am not afraid.”
Friday’s vote showed little had changed. These ideologically motivated American bishops “are still against him,” said Nicolas Senèze, the French Vatican journalist who presented Francis with his book “How America Wished to Change the Pope”.
“They are still against the reform of the church that Francis wants and they continue to be on the same political agenda of the Republican Party,” he added. “The American church is as divided as the people of the United States.”
Even before President Biden’s inauguration, conservative bishops seemed determined to clash with him.
In November 2020, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, whom Francis has repeatedly refused to elevate to the rank of cardinal, wrote a letter warning Mr. Biden that his position on the right to abortion created a “difficult and complex situation”. Support for the right to abortion among prominent politicians “who profess the Catholic faith,” the Archbishop wrote, “creates confusion among the faithful as to what the Catholic Church actually teaches on these issues.”
The Archbishop then formed a working group on the issue. On the day of the inauguration, Archbishop Gomez greeted the new president with a long statement warning that “our new president is committed to pursuing certain policies that would advance moral evils”.
The Vatican, for its part, sent a congratulatory telegram urging the president to pursue policies “marked by genuine justice and freedom.”
Ultimately, Senèze said, Francis understood that only time would change the makeup of the American bishops’ conference and bring the American church into alignment with Rome.
“There has to be a biological solution,” he said. “Francis has to wait until they retire.”