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ON BOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis on Wednesday said that Communion is for those who are “in the community” and politicians who support abortion are “outside of the community.” However, he also said that in these cases, it’s a pastoral matter that must be addressed by the individual’s pastor.

The pope’s remarks came after the group of English-speaking journalists traveling with him on his flight back from Slovakia pressed him specifically on the matter of communion for pro-choice politicians; he was also asked if he had ever publicly denied communion to a pro-choice politician.

The question comes as the U.S. bishops are considering a document on the Eucharist, which could address the issue of pro-choice Catholic politicians such as President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Pope Francis began his response by saying that he’s never denied communion to anyone, but also that “I don’t know if any came in this condition. But I was never conscious of having in front of me a person like the one you describe.”

It’s worth noting that when Francis was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, all Catholic politicians were openly pro-life, with the push for legalizing abortion in the country gaining steam in the years after he moved to Rome.

The pontiff then said that he’d only had a “funny” situation once, when he said Mass at a nursing home, and asked those present who was going to receive Communion – presumably to consecrate the needed amount of hosts. All of them said yes, and afterwards, an old lady came to him and said, “thank you for that. I’m a Jewish woman.”

He used this anecdote to then say that “communion is not a prize for the perfect,” but a “gift, the presence of Jesus in his Church, and in the community. This is the theology.”

“Then, those who are not in the community, cannot receive communion,” he said. “Out of the community: Excommunicated, it’s a harsh word, but they don’t belong in the community, because they were not baptized, or because they are estranged from it.”

Francis then referred to the “abortion issue,” saying that it’s “more than a problem: It’s a homicide. No middle terms. Whomever does an abortion, kills.”

As he’s done before, he referred to embryology books that very clearly state that at the third week from conception, the organs of the new person are formed, often before the mother realizes she might be pregnant.

“It is a human life. A person. This human life is respected, and the principle is clear,” he said.

According to Francis, the Church is so “harsh” on this issue because it’s very clear: It’s a human life and not a problem that can be solved by “hiring a hit-man.” The Church accepting abortion, he said, would be like the Church “accepting daily homicide.”

“Those people who are not in the community cannot take communion, because they are out of the community,” he insisted. “It is not a punishment: Communion is linked to the community.”

The pope then said that the problem posed to him by the journalists is not a theological one, because at such, “it is simple.”

“The problem is pastoral, how do we, as bishops, manage this principle,” he said. “If we look at the history of the Church, we will see that every time the bishops acted not as pastors in a problem, they became politicians.”

“When the church, by defending a principle, does it in a non-pastoral way, it gets into the political plane, and this has always been so,” he said. “And what should the pastor do? He shouldn’t go around condemning. And he must also be a pastor with those who are excommunicated, and be so with God’s style, which is closeness, compassion and tenderness.”

“A pastor who does not know how to manage with the style of God slips and gets into many things that are not of a pastor,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to “particularize” and talk about the United States, because “I do not know the details.”

He said that generalizing on whether “it can be given or not … is casuistry,” but then lamented that there’s often “condemnation,” and asked not to talk about excommunication but people who “are temporarily outside of the community,” but are also “children of God and need our pastoral action.”

Gay marriage and civil unions

Francis also spoke about same-sex marriage, saying marriage is a sacrament and as such, it can never be between two people of the same sex.

The pope said the Catholic Church “doesn’t have the power to change a sacrament as it was instituted by the Lord”, but he supported civil laws that try to help “those who have a diverse sexual orientation,” because “it’s important to help these people, but without giving something that, due to its nature, the Church cannot give.”

“But if a homosexual couple wants to lead a life together, the State has the possibility to give them safety, stability, inheritance; and not only to homosexuals but to all the people who want to associate. But marriage is a marriage.”

“This does not mean that they have to be condemned; No please, they are our brothers and sisters,” Francis continued. “But marriage is a sacrament, and as such, no. This is clear. But a civil law that helps also, for instance, two widows who want to associate for civil law to protect them, that’s fine.”

The sacrament of marriage, he insisted, is between a man and a woman, and “sometimes what I say seeds confusion, because we are all equal. The Lord is good, and wants for all of us to be saved, but please, don’t make the Church deny the truth.”

COVID-19 and vaccinations

Speaking about COVID vaccines and the freedom receive them, the pope said that children regularly get vaccinated against polio and other diseases without complaint. The rejection from some Christians to COVID vaccines, he said, probably comes from the “virulence and uncertainty” of not only the pandemic but also the vaccine, and the rumors some of these have been “little more than distilled water.”

“This generated some fear in the people,” he said. “Also, in the College of Cardinals there are some negationists, and one of these, poor man, recovered from COVID… ironies of life.”

Though he didn’t name him, Francis was referring to American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was hospitalized in August, and spent several days in the ICU connected to a ventilator, after contracting COVID-19.

Francis’s remarks came during the traditional inflight press conference with the reporters who traveled with him during his Sept. 12-15 visit to Budapest and Slovakia.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma