Two Priests Debate in WSJ on Communion for Pro-Abortion Politicians

Father Brian Graebe and Father James Martin square off in the pages of America’s largest newspaper.

Holy Communion
Holy Communion (photo: Shutterstock)

There is a growing dissonance in the Catholic Church. To understand where we are at, I recommend Ralph Martin’s book A Church in Crisis: Pathways Forward. It is a “You are here” marker on the map of today’s Catholicism, offering insights on how we got here and directions to navigate the future .

An example of the disagreements within our Church are two competing Catholic voices published recently in the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal. Father Brian Graebe’s July 22 letter, headlined “The Catholic Church Has a Duty to Correct the Powerful on Abortion,” responded to Father James Martin’s commentary “Abortion and the Grumbling Crowd.”

Father Martin began by asking, “Should a Catholic politician who supports abortion rights receive communion?” He claimed that the Communion question for Joe Biden was settled by Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington who said he would not deny him Communion.

At the same time, he noted that Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco declared that Speaker Nancy Pelosi would be barred from receiving Communion in his archdiocese for her actions on abortion, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops calls the “pre-eminent moral issue of our time.” Father Martin wrote:

The archbishop has written that a Catholic legislator who supports ‘procured abortion’ commits ‘a manifestly grave sin which is a cause of most serious scandal to others.’ Universal church law, Archbishop Cordileone pointed out in his declaration, provides that such persons ‘are not to be admitted to Holy Communion (Code of Canon Law, can. 915).’

He contends that since we are all unworthy to receive Communion, no one should be denied it. He quoted Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego — recently nominated to become a cardinal — against the “weaponization” of the Eucharist. McElroy stated that failure in following Catholic teaching in its fullness “cannot be the measure of Eucharistic worthiness in a church of sinners and questioners, who must face intense pressures and complexities in their daily lives.”

Father Martin said Bishop McElroy has asked, “Why target only abortion?” and used the example of former Attorney General William Barr’s support of the death penalty, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares “inadmissible.” According to Bishop McElroy, “The Eucharist must never be instrumentalized for a political end, no matter how important.” 

Father Martin then held up Pope Francis against the American bishops because the Pope has said there are other life issues besides abortion, pointing to poverty, human trafficking and other issues. He also noted that Pope Francis has never denied anyone Communion, preferring to leave it to the person’s conscience and their pastor.  Father Martin claimed that the best solution is the example of Jesus in the Gospels: simply to call people to repentance. 

Father Graebe, pastor of the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York, saw things differently in his commentary:

The heinousness of abortion — intentional killing of the most defenseless and vulnerable among us — prompted the bishops of this country to identify it as the pre-eminent moral issue of our time. The Catholic Church identifies abortion as intrinsically evil, meaning that it is always wrong by its nature; no circumstances could ever justify it.

Mixing abortion with other forms of unjust human suffering diminishes its unique evil through false equivalences, according to Graebe:

The church has always taught that the state has the inherent right to carry out capital punishment. How and when is a matter for debate. The last three popes have sought to limit its application, and Pope Francis has declared it ‘inadmissible.’ … But that’s not the same as saying it is wrong in itself. To say that would be to contradict the apostolic faith of the church. Another issue often cited is poverty. No one of good will wants people to remain poor, but how best to relieve poverty is a matter for prudential judgment.

“Church leaders have a responsibility to correct those who use the powers of their public offices to promote, facilitate and expand access to the unique evil of abortion,” he said.

He called denial of Communion a “last resort, reserved for the most egregious violations of justice,” but said, “Enabling the killing of unborn children far exceeds that threshold.”

Ironically, Father Graebe said that it is Father Martin who promotes weaponizing the Eucharist:

Every reception of communion wounds that public official’s soul and deepens its alienation from God. Withholding communion from someone in manifest, public, grave sin is not an act of unkindness, but one of love and mercy. Sometimes medicine has to sting before it can heal. When the church sees souls jeopardizing their salvation through sacrilegious communions, she would be derelict not to intervene.

It is true, as Father Martin said, that there are other sinners going up for Holy Communion. But how does that justify a pastor offering no resistance? Receiving Communion in the state of mortal sin is a sacrilege regardless of the type of mortal sin. A Mafia don hiring hitmen or an unfaithful spouse flaunting adultery should also be told not to receive Jesus in Holy Communion. The ferocity of Pelosi and Biden’s public promotion of abortion is deserving of a public chastisement.

This topic is not about politeness. It is about the travesty of killing unborn babies, and it’s about salvation. Don’t our Catholic shepherds also have a responsibility to guard Jesus in the Eucharist as best they can so as not to abet sacrilege?