Bishop Wall on Politicians and Communion: ‘Our Concern Is Not Political but Pastoral’
The Gallup, New Mexico, shepherd is the latest bishop to speak out, about safeguarding reception of the Eucharist.
Bishop James Wall of Gallup, New Mexico, responded Tuesday to a recent essay from Bishop Robert McElroy, in which the shepherd of San Diego opined that in discussions about whether pro-abortion Catholic politicians should be admitted to Communion, the sacrament is being “weaponized for political ends.”
Bishop Wall said that it is a pastoral, rather than political, question.
“While I don’t presume to know what’s in the mind and heart of my brother bishops, I am not motivated by political ends, nor are those with whom I have discussed the subject. Our concern is not political but pastoral; it is for the salvation of souls. This issue has political ramifications, but that is not an excuse to shy away at this crucial moment,” Bishop Wall wrote in a May 18 essay in First Things.
“Speaking the truth at times appears to create division, but often it simply exposes the division that already exists. If Catholics cannot agree on protecting the helpless unborn, then our unity is superficial at best and illusory at worst.”
Bishop Wall added that, “when bishops share according to their conscience and listen to others' points of view, they foster genuine dialogue — a necessary step on the path to unity.”
The topic of Holy Communion for pro-abortion Catholic politicians has become especially relevant with the election of Joe Biden, the first Catholic U.S. president in six decades, who has repeatedly advocated for and and enacted policies that protect legal abortion.
In his May 5 essay, Bishop McElroy decried what he called “a theology of unworthiness” to receive the Eucharist, whereby those who practice it focus too strongly, in his view, on discipline.
Bishop McElroy argued that the logic of denying pro-abortion politicians the Eucharist constitutes an “extremely expansive” litmus test that “applies sanctions very selectively and inconsistently.”
In response, Bishop Wall pointed out that under canon law, abortion is one of the few sins that carries with it an automatic excommunication.
“There is no doubt that a politician who actively protects abortion and strives to make it more accessible also risks his or her salvation,” Bishop Wall wrote.
“It surely is not ‘expansive’ to put this evil in the category of grave sin.”
Bishop Wall also noted that existing canon law says that “a person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession.”
On Bishop McElroy’s charge that abortion is being singled out to the detriment of other evils, Bishop Wall said the gravity of the sin of abortion has been consistently highlighted by the U.S. bishops’ conference.
“While there are many serious sins that diminish our worthiness to receive the Eucharist, only the gravest sins extinguish that worthiness entirely,” he noted.
“As a body of bishops we have read ‘the signs of the times,’ recognized that abortion is the great evil of our culture, and called it out as such for decades. … Pro-abortion political leaders have not heeded these calls, and now we seek to apply the last remaining and most severe medicinal option we have: Eucharistic sanctions.”
Bishop Wall concluded by highlighting the importance of bishops calling the people they shepherd back into a state of grace if they have committed mortal sin.
“Bishop McElroy examines the arguments for denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians and asks, ‘How many Catholic political leaders of either party could pass that test?’ I would suggest that this is the wrong question,” Bishop Wall concluded. “Jesus was not interested in numbers, but in the salvation of souls. A better question might be, ‘Have I done absolutely everything I can as a bishop to try to bring all pro-abortion Catholic politicians in my flock back into a state of grace?’”
Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, a prominent theologian and a member of the International Theological Commission, said in an essay earlier this month that dissenting Catholic politicians abuse and politicize the Eucharist when they receive the sacrament while promoting policies and actions contrary to the faith, such as legal abortion.
Catholic politicians who reject Church teaching but then present themselves for Holy Communion “are using — and so abusing — the Eucharist for seemingly political purposes — to present themselves as ‘devout’ Catholics,” Father Weinandy wrote in a May 1 essay for The Catholic Thing.
Biden has publicly advocated for protection of legal abortion, including the codification of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Biden has also supported taxpayer funding of elective abortions and has taken action as president to allow for taxpayer funding of pro-abortion groups in the United States and abroad.
The bishops of the United States may address the topic of “Eucharistic coherence” at their spring meeting next month.
Earlier in May, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote to the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops regarding admission to Communion, advising that bishops should affirm as a conference that ‘those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life.’”
The prefect, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, added that “any statement of the Conference regarding Catholic political leaders would best be framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful, rather than only one category of Catholic, reflecting their obligation to conform their lives to the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ as they prepare to receive the sacrament.”
Numerous U.S. bishops have spoken out in recent months on the topic of whether public figures who persist in manifest grave sin should be admitted to Holy Communion.
Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, writing in America magazine last month, said that those who receive Holy Communion, including politicians, must adhere to Catholic doctrinal and moral teaching. Otherwise, they would go against St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, which say that whoever eats and drinks unworthily will be “guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord'' and bring “judgment upon himself.”
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago responded to Archbishop Aquila’s essay by suggesting that it violated Catholic sacramental principles, like the idea that the sacraments are based on the power of God and cannot be diminished by either the celebrant or recipient.
Archbishop Aquila responded that the benefit of the sacrament of the Eucharist depends on the subjective disposition of the person receiving it.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco wrote in a May 1 pastoral letter that any Catholic cooperating with the evil of abortion should refrain from receiving the Eucharist. He included a section on Catholic public officials who advocate for abortion.
“Please stop pretending that advocating for or practicing a grave moral evil — one that snuffs out an innocent human life, one that denies a fundamental human right — is somehow compatible with the Catholic faith. It is not. Please return home to the fullness of your Catholic faith,” he wrote.
Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix has stated that Catholics cooperating with abortion should not present themselves for Communion.
“Woe to us bishops if we do not speak clearly about the grave evil of abortion, and the consequences of any Catholic who participates in the act or publicly supports it by word or action,” Bishop Olmsted said in a May 6 statement.
Referring to bishops who do not clearly denounce the evil of abortion and of Catholics supporting it, Bishop Olmsted condemned “a false patience and pastoral concern that, year after year, stays silent or speaks in abstractions while the slaughter continues with the full endorsement of Catholic politicians under our spiritual care as bishops.”
In March, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois told a regional conference of the Canon Law Society of America that Catholics who publicly and obstinately advocate for abortion, including politicians, can and should be denied Communion under canon law.
“I‘m talking about their external actions. If they’re living in a way or holding positions that are contrary to Church teaching, then the minister of Communion has to deny them the sacrament,” Bishop Paprocki told CNA.
During his homily at the vigil Mass for Life in January, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, taught that Catholics should not receive Communion if they are contradicting “fundamental” Church teaching.