ROME, March 20, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) - One of the little-known legacies of Pope Benedict XVI is his consistent push to have pro-abortion politicians given the opportunity to repent and come back to a right relationship with God by refusing them Holy Communion. Benedict’s public role in the matter began in 2004 prior to his pontificate, while head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II.

At that time, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger intervened into a debate among the U.S. bishops on the issue of Communion for pro-abortion Catholic politicians. The then-Cardinal said in his letter titled "Worthiness to receive Holy Communion," that a Catholic politician who would vote for "permissive abortion and euthanasia laws" after being duly instructed and warned, "must" be denied Communion.

Ratzinger’s letter explained that if such a politician "with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it."

As Pope, Benedict XVI confirmed this position. Answering a reporter on an in-flight press conference in 2007, he responded to a question on the Mexican bishops excommunicating politicians who support legalizing abortion. "Yes, this excommunication was not an arbitrary one but is allowed by Canon law, which says that the killing of an innocent child is incompatible with receiving Communion, which is receiving the Body of Christ," said the Pope.

Will Pope Francis follow suit?

The initial signs are positive that Pope Francis will follow in Pope Benedict’s footsteps on the matter.

As LSN reported in 2007, it was Pope Francis (then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio) who, on behalf of the bishops of Latin America presented the "Aparecida Document" regarding the situation of the Church in their countries. The document made a very clear statement regarding the consequences of supporting abortion, disallowing Holy Communion for anyone who facilitates an abortion, including politicians.

The text states in paragraph 436 that "we should commit ourselves to ‘Eucharistic coherence,’ that is, we should be conscious that people cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act or speak against the commandments, in particular when abortion, euthanasia, and other serious crimes against life and family are facilitated. This responsibility applies particularly to legislators, governors, and health professionals."

But beyond this signal is Francis’ approach to matters eternal, seeing true love as embracing the cross and the eternal realities rather than merely the temporal and political climate.

But Pope Francis is “pastoral”

To answer the common objection that such disciplinary measures would not be employed with a pastoral approach, one must consider the nature of denial of Holy Communion.

From the earliest days of the Church, receiving Holy Communion unworthily has been forbidden; but forbidden out of concern for those who would make such unworthy Communions. St. Paul in the eleventh chapter of First Corinthians wrote: "Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord." (1 Cor. 11:27-29)

From this perspective, Bishops who treat Catholic politicians who support abortion as if they were in full Communion with the Church are neglecting their pastoral concern and charity for their wayward spiritual children.

As Pope Benedict’s appointee to head the highest court in the Vatican, Cardinal Raymond Burke told LifeSiteNews in a 2009 interview, politicians who are persisting in what the Church says is a "grave sin" must be refused Communion for the sake of their own souls. "When you talk to these people, they know," he said. "They know what they're doing is very wrong. They have to answer to God for that, but why through our pastoral negligence add on to that, that they have to answer to God for who knows how many unworthy receptions of Holy Communion?"

The highest authority on the subject in the Vatican, next to the Pope, is the head (or Prefect) of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Antonio Canizares. In a 2009 LifeSiteNews interview, Cardinal Canizares said: "The strongest words are found in St. Paul: one who goes to the Eucharist and is not properly prepared, duly prepared, 'he eats his own condemnation.' This is the strongest thing that we can say and what is the most truthful statement."

He noted that this approach to love in truth is contained in Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate: “This principle, caritas in veritate [love in truth], should be the principle used, first by politicians when they come to Communion, and second it should be the rule for bishops when they decide whether to give or to withdraw Communion."

It remains to be seen if Pope Francis will fulfill the legacy of Pope Benedict on this question. As hard as Pope Benedict pushed for this pastoral reform, it was rarely practiced or enforced by bishops in the West.

Perhaps Pope Francis will be more successful in having the world’s bishops get with the program.