Earlier this month Sandro Magister’s Chiesa broadcast an interesting particular in the Masses celebrated by Pope Francis:
At the moment of communion, Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio does not administer it himself, but allows others to give the consecrated host to the faithful. He sits down and waits for the distribution of the sacrament to be completed.
At solemn Masses, Francis distributes the eucharist only to his assistants on the altar. And at the juvenile detention center on Holy Thursday, he gave the sacrament to young detainees who approached to receive it. These, however, are exceptions to his habit of abstention. What explains it?
Magister locates the origin of Francis’ practice in a passage from On Heaven and Earth , a series of conversations between then-archbishop Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, biophysicist and rabbi of Buenos Aires. First published in Argentina in 2010, it contains this from Bergoglio:
David had been an adulterer and had ordered a murder, and nonetheless we venerate him as a saint because he had the courage to say: ‘I have sinned.’ He humbled himself before God. One can commit enormous mistakes, but one can also acknowledge them, change one’s life and make reparation for what one has done. 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. Such cases of spiritual hypocrisy present themselves in many who take refuge in the Church and do not live according to the justice that God preaches. And they do not demonstrate repentance. This is what we commonly call leading a double life.
For the first time since the conclave my heart did not lift at news of Francis. It hurts to admit it, but this time I was nonplussed. Even disappointed. Our pope has a teaching authority in matters of morals as well as of faith. Because we are subject to that authority, we want it—need it—to be as unambiguous in gesture as in directive and the proclamation of imperatives. I cannot shake discomfort with Francis’ conventionalizing an act that, by its nature, warrants deliberate, focused discernment.
There exist means of keeping photos at bay. Ask any museum. They are expert at blocking photography when they choose on grounds of etiquette, trespass, or both. Nevertheless, the issue at stake here is not about optics. By routinely sitting it out, Francis elevates optics over substance. Refusing to discriminate when discrimination is in order cannot be applauded on grounds of prudence or charity. It is neither.
Nancy Pelosi and vice-president Biden attended the Mass for the inauguration of Francis’ pontificate. Both Catholics, both high-profile boosters for abortion, they stood for communion. (In 2008, then-archbishop of Denver Charles Chaput, called Biden’s support for abortion a grave public fault, adding “I presume that his integrity will lead him to refrain from presenting himself for communion.”) The two received from Francis’ assistants while the pope remained seated behind the altar. Had he distributed communion himself but turned the chalice over to his assistants before reaching two public proponents of what the Church considers a non-negotiable, intrinsic evil, a point would have been made. Instead, a rare historic moment for apostolic witness was lost, sacrificed to Francis’ customary abstention and the protocols of state.
By sending Pelosi and Biden as representatives, our president took a sly, sophisticated swipe at the Church’s condemnation of abortion. In effect, he taunted the Church, confident in the power of diplomacy—the ferocity of manners—to smother witness. Francis’ custom left him not complicit—that is too harsh a word—with the insult but certainly toothless in the face of it. Hoist on the decorums of state and his own inclinations, the pope kept his hands clean. But the price of that is on the scoreboard: Abortion Regime 1, Francis 0.
Americans have a phrase for this: passing the buck . Precisely because the pope’s abstention is a general habit—rather than a targeted gesture—it loses sinew. Any moral vigor his restraint might have is dissipated by indiscriminate application. Efficacy requires a more surgical, less theatrical, employment. Without that, abstention shrivels to theatre. Mere style.
Observant readers will have noted another worrisome thing in Francis’ 2010 statement. The species of sin he specifies (improper management of capital, paying unjust wages) are the stock bogeymen of Marxist grievance. Charitable organizations who do not pay their employees what they deserve . Who are these employers who “have killed indirectly”? We have been around this block before on behalf of that abstraction, the exploited worker. What, precisely, determines what any employee deserves without reference to a specific employee in a specific context? Generalized swats lend themselves easily to class resentment and all its familiar mischief. They contribute to demagogic mystifications, illuminating nothing.
The statist bureaucrats of Jorge Borgoglio’s native Argentina nationalized private pensions—the savings of responsible citizens—while he was archbishop. It was an act of theft more consequential than the mundane imperfections of unnamed charitable organizations. Colossal public debt and deficits are more formidable enemies of the common good than Marxist-lite hobgoblins in the workplace. Surely Francis knows this. Let us pray his reign is marked by the boldness to say so.