Many Catholics seem eager to condemn President Biden because of his political stance on abortion and want Pope Francis to ban him from receiving Holy Communion according to Canon Law, Code 915. It states: “Those who are excommunicated or…who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” Since this law prohibits giving the Eucharist to anyone who obstinately perseveres in serious sin, watchers of Biden’s meeting with the Pope this week are frustrated, angered, and confused that he was received and thanked, instead of admonished and stricken.
Though I cannot unravel the confusion or dispel the frustration, I can offer a perspective that might help those willing to take a wider view of Catholic law and spirituality. As I see it, Pope Francis, when interpreting the mind of God, places primary emphasis on mercy, not condemnation. As a Jesuit who is very familiar with The Spiritual Exercises, he is well immersed in understanding sin, especially his own. Ignatian Spirituality is rooted in being intimately aware of sins, which bring forth overwhelming guilt, embarrassment, shame, and remorse—but not despair. Jesuits, because they offer the Examen each day, are continuously in touch with sin. It is no surprise, then, that when he was elected pope and reporters asked the new pontiff: “Who are you?” Francis responded, without hesitation, “I am a sinner.”
There is a famous parallel story about G. K. Chesterton who once responded to an inquiry by The London Times that asked, “What’s Wrong with the World?” He stated: “I am.” Like the pope, he inspires us to take more personal responsibility for our faults and societal ills while placing less blame on others. In Week One of The Jesuit Retreat, retreatants become intimately aware of their sins and sins of the world, starting with the angels and Adam and Eve. But far more than that, they also become aware of the immense and overpowering mercy of God. Francis wants us to know that the name of God is mercy. He reminds us that it is not our job to condemn: “Who am I to judge?” He recalls Jesus’ parable of the weeds and wheat, in which the weeds of sin are not pulled lest the wheat of virtue also gets uprooted. He instructs us that, at the harvest, the weeds and wheat will be separated and handled—we don’t need to help with what is not our job.
This does not negate law or the fact that we should follow it; we need law, structure, and order to guide us. When asked about the law, Jesus responded that the (613) Jewish laws (and, I believe, the 1752 canon laws) have value only if the law of love is observed first and foremost—otherwise, they are irrelevant. Those who condemn Catholic politicians claim that they are trying to save their souls. That is, no doubt, a noble task: condemnation on earth might save them (or any of us) from condemnation in the next world. I don’t know if that is the best way to try and save others, but I do know that Jesus invited sinners to join Him at the table of fellowship and reminded us that those labeled as sinners are entering the kingdom of heaven before the self-righteous.
Though abortion is only one grave sin that elected officials can impact—attitudes toward violence and poverty, acts of extortion, sexual misconduct, or racial prejudice can be equally grave—it is the one that we tend to zero in on when judging Catholic politicians. If society embraced these communal sins in the manner that Ignatius taught his followers to embrace personal sin, we might have a holier disposition and healthier understanding. I have come to believe that if the abortion battle (or any other religious belief we hold dear) is to be won, it will be done not by changing laws but changing hearts, not by sanctioning excommunication but reflecting divine mercy. Jesus challenges us to keep laws in their proper place while Francis encourages the church to present God to the world through love, not judgment, and through mercy, not condemnation.