Pope Francis on Wednesday cautioned Catholic bishops not to get into politics, amid questions among conservative US elements of the church over whether pro-choice politicians like Joe Biden should be allowed to receive communion.
Francis said bishops must deal with those who support abortion rights with “compassion and tenderness”.
At the same time the pope reiterated strict church doctrine by calling abortion “murder”, even when done soon after conception.
Francis was speaking to reporters on his flight home from Slovakia, and was asked about the debate simmering among US bishops in the wake of the high-profile Texas abortion law, which Mr Biden’s administration strongly opposes.
“The problem is not theological, it’s pastoral,” the pope said. “How we bishops deal with this principle. We must be pastors, also with those who are excommunicated. Like God with passion and tenderness. The Bible says so,” he was quoted as saying by CNN.
Francis declined to address Mr Biden’s any more directly, but it was the closest the pope has come to addressing the issue since the Vatican in July ordered bishops to drop their demands to deny Catholic politicians communion for supporting a women’s right to abort a baby.
“Communion is not a prize for the perfect… communion is a gift, the presence of Jesus and his church,” said the pope.
Nonetheless, he went on to say that “abortion is murder… those who carry out abortions kill”. “At the third week after conception, often even before the mother is aware [about her pregnancy], all the organs are already [developing]. It is a human life. Period. And this human life has to be respected. It is very clear. Scientifically, it is a human life.”
The pope cited historic atrocities committed by the church in the name of faith when it involved itself in politics, as he asked the pastors to “be pastors and not go condemning, condemning”.
“Be a pastor, because he is a pastor also for the excommunicated.”
The comments from the pope come as Mr Biden’s Justice Department moved the courts to block the highly restrictive abortion law in Texas from coming into effect. The law effectively prevents a woman from getting an abortion as soon as the foetus develops a heartbeat, which is within six weeks of her pregnancy.
According to a Pew survey, more than half of US Catholics favour abortion rights and over 67 per cent say that Mr Biden should be allowed to receive Communion during Mass despite his abortion stance.
Additional reporting from agencies