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The Pope’s silence speaks volumes about the controversial vote on communion by the US bishops

VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis on Saturday set a European Union founder on the path to holiness, urged Roman deacons to look after the poor and met with a high-ranking prelate who once joined him against wild allegations by the former Vatican ambassador the United States defended states.

But the most illuminating thing he did was on the extraordinary vote of the Roman Catholic bishops of America, despite warnings from the Pope’s chief teaching officer, to continue developing new guidelines that the Conservatives hope will eventually give President Biden Communion will refuse his support for abortion law.

The Pope said nothing, church officials and experts said because there is nothing else to say.

The deviation of the American Conservative Church from Francis’ agenda is now so evident that it is going under the roof, and Vatican officials and experts said Saturday that the Pope’s silence also underscored how unsurprisingly the American vote, which was released on Friday was for the Vatican.

The deeply conservative American Bishops’ Conference displayed a remarkably explicit letter from the Vatican back in May urging it to avoid voting. For years she has ignored the Pope’s pleadings to place less emphasis on the issues of culture war and to expand the scope of her mission to include climate change, migration and poverty.

On Friday, in an often bitter virtual meeting, the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference voted by a large majority to begin drafting guidelines on the sacrament of the Eucharist. This guide could become a vehicle for conservative leaders in the US Church to refuse 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 top officials remained confident that American Conservatives would never adopt such a doctrinal statement banning communion.

For this, the bishops’ conference would either need unanimous support, which is basically impossible, or two-thirds support and the approval of the Vatican.

“It won’t get that far,” said a senior Vatican official who knows the way of thinking in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church doctrinal guardian. “It’s unimaginable.”

President Biden took a similar view when asked about the vote yesterday.

“This is a private matter,” he told reporters. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

The biggest threat from Friday’s vote was to the unity of the American Church itself, and not to Mr Biden and other Catholic politicians who supported the right to abortion.

Voting to develop new guidelines on this issue guarantees that they will stay in the political bloodstream and become even stronger if the Doctrine Committee of American Bishops works on the guidelines ahead of a scheduled November meeting.

And officials and clergy close to Francis feared that the Communion Document could be used as a wedge theme to get Republican voters to the ballot box, as well as to put Catholics in pews.

Several experts said they were ultimately awaiting a document that strongly reaffirmed the importance of the Eucharist, one of the most sacred rituals in Christianity, but that reflects the Pope’s concerns and does not specifically call for Mr. Biden and other influential politicians to be refused communion and cultural figures who support the right to abortion.

There is a feeling in the Vatican that the status quo will prevail and that the discretion over communion will be left to the individual bishops. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington has made it clear that he will not withhold communion from the President.

“I don’t think they’re worried at Casa Marta,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican reporter for the Roman newspaper La Repubblica, referring to the pope’s residence.

However, concerns remain among Francis’ allies in the Vatican that the Conservatives who dominate the conference will use the rite of communion as a political weapon, setting a poor global precedent for politicizing a church that Francis wishes to keep above the struggle .

The real motivation of the May letter from the Pope’s chief teaching officer, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the Vatican official said is to avoid this and the weakening, division and politicization of the American Church by maintaining unity among its bishops.

That clearly failed.

Francis has repeatedly argued that collegial dialogue between bishops is the key to lasting reform in the Church.

Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Francis, pointed out that even when the bishops called to Rome overwhelmingly voted for the ordination of some married men in remote locations, a position held by liberals and opposed by conservatives, she did not ratify because the biographer said of the polarization that the debate revealed. (Some of the Pope’s disappointed supporters thought he simply gave up under conservative pressure.)

Although he does not expect unanimity among his bishops, the Pope wants a convergence of opinions, Ivereigh said.

“For Francis, a majority vote from a deeply divided bishops’ conference is not a sign that one should move on, but rather the opposite,” he said. He added that the American bishops’ vote on Friday – with 73 percent in favor of guidelines and 24 percent against – clearly inconsistent with the pope’s priorities.

“Francis was consistent in his message to the American bishops: ‘Do not get caught up in cultural wars and bear a testimony of unity,'” Ivereigh said. “I don’t think this vote will do that.”

On Saturday, in the blessing room 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”.

When the deacons left the congregation and went to St. Peter’s Square, several said they had never heard of an Italian priest who for some reason refused communion to a politician and that there was a clear division between the politics that belong in parliament, and faith that belonged in the church.

“We have never sent anyone away from Communion,” said Rafaelle Grasso, a deacon in a parish in Rome. “That never happens here.”

In large parts of Europe and Latin America, it is basically unthinkable for bishops to refuse communion to politicians who publicly advocate the right to abortion. John Paul II offered communion to Francesco Rutelli, a former mayor of Rome and candidate for prime minister who supported the right to abortion.

“Almost all bishops in the world look to the Church of the United States right now,” said Ivereigh, “and wonder, ‘What is it?’

The American effort is “a very dangerous initiative,” said Alberto Melloni, a church historian in Rome.

Francis recognized at the papal level in September 2019 the sharp opposition he had faced from conservative Catholic critics in the United States. Presented with a book examining the links of conservative American bishops in a well-funded and media-supported American attempt to undermine his pontificate, Francis replied that it was “an honor that Americans attack me.”

Asked on another flight to expand the ongoing resistance he has faced from Catholic Conservatives in the United States, Francis said, “I pray there are no divisions,” adding, “But I’m not afraid. “

Friday’s vote showed that not much had changed. These ideologically driven American bishops “are still against him,” said Nicolas Senèze, the French Vatican reporter who introduced Francis to his book “How America Wanted to Change the Pope”.

“They are still against the reform of the Church that Francis wants, and they are still 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 to be planning a showdown with him.

In November 2020, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, President of the United States Bishops’ Conference, whom Francis has repeatedly refused to elevate to the rank of Cardinal, wrote a letter warning Biden that his position on the right to abortion was against a “difficult and complex situation.” The support of the right to abortion among prominent politicians “professing the Catholic faith,” wrote the Archbishop, “creates confusion among believers about what the Catholic Church actually teaches on these issues”.

The archbishop then formed a working group on this subject. On the day of his inauguration, Archbishop Gomez greeted the new president with a lengthy statement warning that “our new president has promised to pursue certain policies that encourage moral evils”.

The Vatican, on the other hand, sent a congratulatory telegram calling on the President to pursue a policy that “is characterized by authentic justice and freedom”.

In the end, Senèze said, Francis understood that only time would change the composition of the American Bishops’ Conference and bring the American Church into harmony with Rome.

“There has to be a biological solution,” he said. “Francis has to wait for you to retire.”

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