A blip in the previous month’s news had a particular theological significance. (Reported here by NPR).
Apparently, when US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic who supports the legality of abortion in the United States, visited the Vatican, she and her husband attended a mass presided over by Pope Francis, and she received communion, albeit not from the Pope’s own hand, but from a priest under this authority.
This is significant because Pelosi’s own bishop back home, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of the archdiocese of San Francisco, announced some time ago his controversial decision to deny her the sacrament, along with any other Catholics who publicly dissent from the church’s moral stances by advocating for abortion to be protected by law. The justification for this is that no one, according to tradition, ought to receive the sacrament, which Catholics believe to be the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ, if they are in a state of unrepentant mortal sin. The prevailing interpretation of Catholic doctrine is that public dissent from an official Church teaching is such a sin. Pelosi and others debate this point.
While the Pope has urged US bishops not to use withholding communion as a political weapon, these conservative bishops allege they are just performing their duty.
The Pope, of course, is having none of it. The NPR article astutely realized that, far from being an endorsement of Pelosi’s views (Pope Francis had spoken against abortion numerous times), this is a statement about his sacramental theology. This pontiff wants to treat communion as “medicine,” not a “reward.” He has expressed an interest in allowing pastors to commune those who are divorced and remarried (living in adultery according to the church) and has stated a desire to share communion with non-Catholic Christians (heretics and schismatics, according to the staunchest traditional view).
This is not really news to those familiar with Pope Francis. In actuality, the most shocking thing in the article, from my perspective, and one to which the voices of absolutely no members of the faithful have turned, is this little throwaway tidbit:
“She was seated in a VIP diplomatic section of the basilica and received Communion along with the rest of the congregants, according to two people who witnessed the moment.”
The basilica of St. Peter has a VIP section, and the wealthy leaders of the secular governments are invited to sit there.
So much for all that pious talk about the church’s “preferential option for the poor.” When was the last time a penniless refugee or one of Rome’s many unhoused residents was seated in a VIP section? Now, Pope Francis and others in his curia (Cardinal Krajewski, for instance) have done a lot for refugees and the unhoused. By no means are they shirked their duties to be charitable. However, the Vatican is unthinkingly violating clear Christian principles.
In the epistle of St. James, the biblical author exhorts the young church:
“My brothers, do not let class distinction enter into your faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord.
Now suppose a man comes into your synagogue, well-dressed and with a gold ring on, and at the same time a poor man comes in, in shabby clothes,
and you take notice of the well-dressed man, and say, ‘Come this way to the best seats’; then you tell the poor man, ‘Stand over there’ or ‘You can sit on the floor by my foot-rest.’
In making this distinction among yourselves have you not used a corrupt standard?” (James 2:1-4)
If God is no respecter of persons, why is the Vatican? Imagine what a profound message it would send to world leaders if they arrived for s visit and found no special treatment for themselves. “Here,” the church could say, “you are just one of God’s creatures like everybody else, and you are going to sit with your neighbors.”
Certainly there are security concerns here. After all, the violent hatred that has been aimed at Pelosi and other politicians surely brings with it some fear of assassination, and it’s not as if the Vatican is impenetrable. Pope John Paul II was shot. It is not a simple issue with a simple fix, but surely it would behoove the church to look for a more equitable, more pious option than a VIP section at mass.
Maybe a “high security” section instead of a VIP one, or a private mass for those with security concerns, would be a better solution than inviting the wealthy to special pews and seats of honor in the capitol church of Catholicism. Maybe some other steps could be taken to humble the rulers of the world when they come to the threshold of the apostles.
In the meantime, perhaps those who want to know why Pelosi and others are being given communion – something routinely received by plenty of lapsed and wayward Catholics in parishes worldwide – could also ask why politicians of all stripes receive actual special treatment in our churches merely by virtue of their secular status.