So, Joe Biden did not, after all, interrupt his preparations for the planned Super Summit with Vladimir Putin the other day in order to fly down to Rome and see the pope. It is just as well, perhaps, inasmuch as the Vatican having nixed the notion of allowing Biden to attend morning Mass with His Holiness, the sticky issue of whether to give him Communion or not never needed to come up. A nice diplomatic solution, you might say, to an issue that could have left a lot of egg on the faces of not a few people.
But why should it have mattered? Must the pope always behave as a diplomat? Why could he not have been just a pastor? Moved by motives of the purest ministerial urgency, why not simply reach out to admonish a wayward member of the Body of Christ? If the Eucharist is not to be seen as, “the reward of saints,” as Pope Francis repeatedly reminds us, “but the bread of sinners,” then why not receive Mr. Biden, not as a Head of State, which is a matter of no consequence in the eyes of God, but as an ordinary sinner in need of the same forgiving grace for which all Catholics ought to hunger and thirst?
“Blessed be sin,” Bernanos tells us, “if it teaches us shame.” But, of course, Biden feels no shame. It is not an equation he would accept, not even were the pope himself to draw his attention to it. Nor does the pope appear disposed to insist upon such a nexus. Not with the current President of the United States, he doesn’t. Why wreck a perfectly good relationship with someone when there are so many pressing issues we need to advance right away, matters about which the two men are already in agreement? Like climate change, for instance. Or unrestricted immigration.
But abortion? Are we really going to rock the boat over that one? Especially since Biden has repeatedly made it clear that he’s not at all penitent on the subject. Indeed, there is no hesitancy on his part whatsoever in justifying the obvious barbarism of abortion. Don’t you see? In his mind, it is not barbarism at all. In fact, he is so supportive of the practice that he wants everyone else in the country to pay for it. Never mind the fierce moral objection of millions of tax paying citizens who persist in the belief that babies in the womb ought to be given constitutional protection.
What a quaint idea that is.
But not nearly as quaint, it seems, as the notion that, as Chief Shepherd of the souls of all Christendom, the pope must always be ready to speak resolutely the Mind of Christ to sinners. Including, especially, great big presidents who have grown ever more obdurate in their public pronouncements in defense of a practice long recognized and condemned as indefensible.
How long can this go on? How much more must we suffer from pro-choice politicians insisting on having it both ways? Hasn’t the time come to revoke their free pass? That it’s not enough in establishing one’s bona fides as a “devout Catholic,” to have the editors of The Washington Post repeatedly say so? Because integrity requires that you actually make an effort to conform your will to the teachings of the Church you profess to be a member of.
Imagine how refreshing things would be, how wonderfully honest and free the air would be, were Pope Francis to adopt the blunt language of his sainted predecessor, Paul VI, who flat out told the colonels in Brazil, who back in 1970 were busy torturing other Brazilians, to cut it out. And to do so on the strength of the pope’s full-throated insistence that, as Christ’s Vicar on earth, “every human being created by God, redeemed by the Blood of Christ, is subject to the Keys of St. Peter.”
Why not simply inform the President, therefore, that until such time as he disavows his stance on the legitimacy of killing children, he cannot present himself for Holy Communion, which is nothing less than receiving the Eternal Child of the Father? What’s keeping him? Is it a failure of nerve? Or maybe he’s waiting for the U.S. Bishops to say it and doesn’t wish to preempt their doing the job themselves? Why, then, doesn’t he say so, thus sparing the rest of us a silence that more and more looks like cowardice?
And let us hear no more nonsense about “weaponizing” the Eucharist. If it is really God breaking himself to become our Bread, and thus the central ritual of Roman Catholic worship, then surely the Church has every right to set permissible limits on whom she may invite to the Banquet. It is, after all, the most sacredly terrifying mystery God has given us, the profanation of which Holy Church must guard against lest she appear complicit in permitting acts of defilement to take place at the Altar of the Lord.
Even ordinary bishops may be required to speak in the accents of Almighty God from time to time. Like St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan back in the fourth century, who refused to be intimidated by the emperor Theodosius, who, having just slaughtered the citizens of Thessalonica for the death of one of his generals, was ordered by Ambrose to perform public penance. The emperor balked on the grounds that being guilty of murder put him in good company since King David had done likewise, and see how beloved by God he was. But Ambrose wasn’t buying it. “You have imitated David in his crime,” he bluntly told him, “now imitate him in his repentance.”
What happened next is the stuff of legend. Appearing in sackcloth and ash outside the cathedral in Milan, stripped of every vestige of imperial power, a prostrate emperor implores Ambrose and God to forgive him, which they do, of course, but only after the poor man has put in eights months of public penance.
It would be a salutary thing for popes and bishops to be reminded that when they speak truth to power it is God himself whom we hear.
[Photo Credit: L’Osservatore Romano, April 29, 2016]