September 17, 2021 Editor

Pope Francis told bishops to shepherd pro-choice politicians ‘with God’s style.’

What does that mean in practice?

Sam Sawyer, S.J.

September 17, 2021

photo above: Pope Francis celebrates a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican May 16, 2021. Celebrating Mass with the Myanmar community living in Rome, the pope prayed for an end to violence in their country. (CNS photo/Donatella Giagnori, pool)

WN: Now this is wise and hopeful! As we’ve come to expect from the Pope, we read:

Pope Francis has a broader—and I would also say braver—vision of what being a pastor means. And I think that vision also has room for bishops, as pastors, to disagree with each other about the best way forward, either in general or in particular concrete circumstances.

And it obviously has room generically in other areas for laity to “disagree with each other about the best way forward”–even for a Protestant Christian like me, knowing by the Pope’s assessment, that there is room nonetheless for me at (even the Eucharistic) table . . .

In 2007 on a five-month sabbatical at (Catholic) St. Paul University in Ottawa, as a Scholar-in-Residence at the Conflict Studies Department1, I was encouraged by professors and priests there to go forward at the Eucharist. It felt a great honour and invariably a blessing. I like to think that had the Pope (Father Bergoglio then) been teaching or officiating there at the time, I would have known the same invitation.

As the final chapter (Revelation 22) of the New Testament puts it:

17The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

That makes my heart soar and my gratitude tingle. Amen.


On his in-flight press conference on Wednesday at the end of his trip to Hungary and Slovakia, Pope Francis responded to a question from America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, about giving Holy Communion to pro-choice politicians. What Pope Francis did not do—in fact what he refused to do—was to settle the question universally and definitively.

Instead, Pope Francis’ answer had a three-part structure: 1) affirm the moral teaching on the injustice of abortion; 2) affirm that people can place themselves outside of the community of the church and thus make themselves unable to receive Communion worthily; 3) point out that the controversies over whether to deny Communion arise not from disagreements over the theological principles in points one and two but rather as a pastoral problem about how to apply them. Francis spent most of his answer warning that the failure to deal with this pastoral problem as pastors could lead bishops into “taking sides about political life,” which does not end well for the church.

I think both of my earlier analyses are in tune with Pope Francis’ focus on the pastoral problem presented by this question. But his response highlighted two points that help me recognize how easy it is to fall into the trap of dealing with pastoral questions in a way that collapses them into political problems, all the while thinking that one is acting as theological and moral truth requires.

First, Francis said that a pastor “must be a shepherd with God’s style,” which he described as “closeness, compassion and tenderness.” He added that this requirement applies even in a pastoral relationship to those who are excommunicated and pointed to scriptural illustrations of this divine “style.” At the conclusion of his answer, Francis again referenced the closeness, compassion and tenderness triad and said that these pastoral principles “are from theology, the pastoral care is theology and the Holy Spirit, who leads you to [act pastorally] with the style of God.”

Similarly, in the current debate in the U.S. church about pro-choice politicians receiving Communion, I think that the issue is not disagreement over the church’s teaching on abortion or that the rejection of it could impact worthiness to receive Communion. No bishop is denying either of those claims. Rather there is a tendency among some Catholics to treat pastoral judgments about the application of these teachings as tantamount to heresy if they are not strict enough.

Please click on: Shepherd Pro-Choice Politicians ‘With God’s Style.’

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  1. See my requisitioned paper from that time: Restorative Justice and International State Conflict: Is There a Place for Dreaming?; Scholar-In-Residence Public Lecture Saint Paul University, September 13, 2007[]


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.