Archbishop Cordileone Explains His Stance Toward Abortion-Supporting Politicians: ‘I’m Trying to Save Souls’

Speaking with the Register, San Francisco’s shepherd discusses his new pastoral letter on abortion, reception of Communion, and the actions of Catholics in public life.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone distributes Communion to the faithful at an outdoor Mass Aug. 22, 2020.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone distributes Communion to the faithful at an outdoor Mass Aug. 22, 2020. (photo: Dennis Callahan / Archdiocese of San Francisco)

WASHINGTON — The question of how to address Catholic politicians who continue to receive Communion while openly defying Church teaching on abortion has gained some new urgency at a time when the nation’s top-ranking public official, President Joe Biden, has continued to receive the Eucharist despite his public, vocal support for abortion.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco recently released a pastoral letter on the human dignity of the unborn, Holy Communion and Catholics in public life that explores the gravity of abortion, the proper disposition for the reception of Communion, and the processes that should be followed when a Catholic public official persists in support for abortion and causes scandal. Archbishop Cordileone discussed the letter with the Register Thursday, explaining the need for his letter and for continued education on the topic. 


Please explain why you’ve released this pastoral letter at this moment.

It has been on my mind for a long time, the need to say or do something clearly on this issue, because there’s so much confusion in the minds of our people. I decided that the best thing, at least initially, is to issue a teaching document. 

The problem is that so many Catholics don’t understand what it means to receive the Eucharist. Some people are in a situation where they should not be receiving Communion, if you only understand Communion as a sense of fellowship, being welcomed at the table — without that idea that it’s the sacrifice of Christ made present to us and that act of sacramental Communion is an expression of our uniting of our sacrifice with his, the sense of being properly disposed in a state of grace. 

Far too many Catholics don’t understand that, so I knew I needed to do some teaching on that; also, some teaching on the reality of abortion and how these issues are connected, because the other side has done a great job at deflecting attention away from it. That’s the only way it can be promoted — if people don’t really recognize how horrendously evil this is — so I needed to expose that. And that’s why I started with the biology of it, to show what it really is, principles in law, and the Church’s perspective on that. 

When it comes to, then, the Communion question, if those who promote or favor legislation for abortion or promote it in other ways, there’s this question of cooperation. I had to have a chapter explaining these distinctions. They’re technical distinctions of moral theology, but they’re important for Catholics to understand, because very often some degree of cooperation is impossible not to have; but if it’s formal, where you intend the act, you participate in the act or facilitate it, and intend it, and if it’s a serious evil, then you’re involved in a very serious sin there. 

I needed to lay all that groundwork to help people understand how Catholics in public life have an added responsibility — because of the public witness that they give — not to contradict Church teaching, but also not to promote any kind of an injustice or anything that would deprive a fundamental human right. 

This letter was a long time in the making, and it was starting to come together last year; but I decided that I should release it after the election because I was afraid people would confuse this with some kind of a political ploy. I didn’t want it to be hijacked by one side or the other for a political purpose. I wanted to stay out of that, so I waited until after the election to release it.


Our country is currently led by a president who publicly presents himself as Catholic and yet celebrates and advances abortion. Given the scandal and confusion that might cause, what sort of action might be taken by his Washington, D.C., or Delaware bishops, the USCCB or even the Vatican in addressing that?

In my document, I wanted to stick to the principles, and I wanted it to be as inclusive as possible, speaking about Catholics and public life. It’s not only political life — it’s in all walks of life where prominent people have a big influence on the society. 

Certainly, in the tech world, CEOs of these big tech companies do; and celebrities do; athletes do. These people have a lot of influence on shaping cultural mentality, so I wanted to stick to the principles. That’s mainly Canon 916. Canon 916 speaks about someone who’s in obstinate, pervasive, serious sin is not to present themselves for Communion. Canon 915 speaks about what to do, if it’s public and it can be a cause of scandal: It says they’re not to be admitted to Communion. 

That’s where it’s really up to each bishop within his own conscience to make that deliberation. He’s the shepherd of his local Church. He’s the teacher in his local Church, and there can be different pastoral judgments from one bishop to another. There are a lot of factors to weigh. It’s not like in civil law — where you break the law, you get punished — because canon law is about the salvation of souls. 

There are a lot of things to take into consideration. What’s really going to move the person down the path of conversion, because that’s the ultimate goal, right? What’s going to better serve Church unity, or what might risk disrupting Church unity? These are factors that have to be weighed when a bishop makes this decision. It is ultimately the responsibility of each bishop to make that decision for his own diocese.


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., resides in your own archdiocese. Would you address if she should be continuing to present herself for Communion, as she does, given her statements for and support of abortion?

I anticipated people are immediately going to think of her, but there are, unfortunately, many Catholics prominent in public life in that situation. That’s why it’s important that these conversations take place. The ultimate goal is that they would realize that. 

I’m thinking of a situation — this is going back many years now — when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States, and he celebrated Mass in New York, and Rudy Giuliani received Communion from him. That was a source of scandal for many people, and we found out later that Cardinal [Edward] Egan had conversations with him, and he had agreed not to receive Communion in general, not at that particular Mass, but he went ahead and received anyway at that Mass because the Pope was giving Communion. Other than that, he had respected the principle of not receiving Communion. It’s an example of how at least they got to that point, where Mr. Giuliani respected the principles there and did not present himself for Communion. 

Sometimes these conversations take place in private — people don’t know about it — and that arrangement can be made. That’s why it’s important that the conversations do take place, and if they become fruitless after repeated attempts, then that’s where a bishop is going to have to make a judgment as to what to do about it.


In your letter, you gave several examples of politicians who were excommunicated for being segregationists. Are there examples of politicians being excommunicated for their unapologetic support of abortion in in recent history? 

Not of excommunication; excommunication is a canonical penalty — what we call a medicinal penalty — because it looks to the conversion of the offending person. And that has a whole process that has to go through [for the person]. 

The other aspect of this, Canon 915 — that they’re not to be admitted to Communion — that has happened in the recent history of our country, where bishops have declared that certain people, the ones I’m aware of are politicians, are not to be admitted to Communion — that’s different from excommunication. 

Canon 915 is not a penalty: It’s a declaration of a fact, and, pastorally, it can only take place after these conversations. Canon law requires warnings before an excommunication, that the person be warned; and then if they don’t repent, be warned again. And there’s this whole process that has to be observed in order for it to be applied.


Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego had a piece in America magazine arguing that denying Communion was “weaponizing” the Eucharist for political ends and that denying someone Communion over their abortion stance represents “a theology of unworthiness and exclusion.” What is your response to that?

First of all, we have a majority of Catholics who no longer understand what Holy Communion means. They don’t understand what it means when they take Communion. They no longer believe in the Real Presence. This is also Eucharistic coherence, we call it, and it’s not present. The bishops are working on this project of “Eucharistic coherence.” This term actually comes from the “Aparecida Document” that the Latin American bishops wrote many years ago: It speaks specifically of politicians who support evil such as abortion and that they violate this principle of Eucharistic coherence if they receive Communion; the lead author of that document being the archbishop of Buenos Aires at the time: Jorge Bergoglio. So, it’s not something unique to American bishops, or, for that matter, Latin American bishops. It’s a basic, timeless principle of Church teaching. We need to safeguard the Eucharist.

The idea that it is being weaponized for political motives, this presumes to read the minds of those who are taking this stand, to know their motives for doing so. For me, it’s not a political motive. It’s not connected with any individual, but it’s connected to the issue. 

I would prefer that a politician who favors abortion policies become pro-life, while continuing to do the good things the politician does, rather than be replaced by a pro-life candidate, because this way we grow. If we’re presuming to read minds, we could also work in reverse. One could say that those who are opposed to applying the Church’s discipline could be doing so for a political purpose to protect the politician from being voted out of office. But either way, I don’t think it’s really going to have a significant political effect. For me, I’m not trying to sway votes. I’m trying to save souls. 

I could see if this were just one issue among others, that one could perhaps think that’s what’s happening, because the U.S. bishops lobby Congress on a whole host of issues, and we don’t relate them to receiving the Eucharist. But we have to recognize that this is at a whole other level. The direct killing of an innocent human being — it’s a specific act, it’s not an issue where there are different possible ways to approach it, and we discern what is the best way to achieve the greatest good; nor is it an attitude that can manifest itself in different ways. 

There is precedent for this. ... When Archbishop [Joseph] Rummel of New Orleans excommunicated those three prominent Catholics in political life, he wasn’t seen as weaponizing the Eucharist, but that was the preeminent issue of the day. 

Every generation has its preeminent issue. In the mid-19th century, it was slavery; in the mid-20th century, it was the civil-rights movement. The civil-rights movement, as we know, was led by faith leaders, and we don’t accuse them of meddling in politics because the monumental issues of the day, they’re fundamentally moral issues. 

I think it’s good to air all the different points of view. I applaud what America magazine is doing on this, to let different bishops write and publish their articles to give their different perspectives on it, because a bishop has to take all of these arguments and points of view into consideration in making his own decision in accordance with his own conscience. I think it’s good that bishops participate in this have different points of view. America also published that article by Archbishop [Samuel] Aquila. 

In the end, the bishops have to respect each other’s decision in the matter because each bishop has to make that decision in accordance with his own conscience; and it’s to Almighty God that the bishop will have to render an account for the decision he made within the sanctuary of his conscience. It’s not to his brother bishops, it’s not to Catholic bloggers, it’s not to politicians, it’s not to news reporters, but to God and to God alone. We have to trust each bishop is doing the best he can in accordance with his conscience and respect that. 


Will the U.S. bishops be taking up this issue of Catholic politicians receiving Communion at their upcoming general assembly June 16-18?

It is on the agenda for our meeting: the issuance of a document on what I called Eucharistic coherence. The bylaws of our conference are that, if a document is going to be written as a document of the whole body of bishops, that the writing of the document has to be approved. Then the document is written, and it goes through several drafts, and it’s open to amendments from the whole body of bishops, and, eventually, the final product has to be approved. This June, we will vote on issuing such a document; then the doctrine committee has the job of writing it. So, hopefully, by November, we’ll have the final product that we’ll be able to vote on; but the decision whether or not to write such a document is on the agenda for this June meeting.


You wrote, “to receive the Blessed Sacrament in the Catholic liturgy is to espouse publicly the faith and moral teachings of the Catholic Church, and to desire to live accordingly. We all fall short in various ways, but there’s a great difference between struggling to live according to the teachings of the Church and rejecting those teachings.” Are you concerned that Catholics don’t understand that?

There’s this casual attitude toward the Eucharist. People might only go to church a couple times a year; it has been years since they went to confession, and they’ll just go up and receive Communion anyway. It’s a massive problem in the Church right now. This decline in the sense of the sacred is at the heart of it all — whether it’s what it means to receive Holy Communion, and what and Who the Eucharist really is, or if it’s respecting the sacredness of every human life. 

We need a massive reeducation effort through our faith-formation programs, RCIA programs, Catholic schools and all that, but it also has to be modeled in the liturgy. If the liturgies are done sloppily and without the proper reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament, that teaches more powerfully than the words that we use. So, it has to be both: It has to be experienced. There’s something instinctual about it. There used to be this Catholic instinct of respect for the sacred.

Sunlight illuminates a tree in full bloom as New York City celebrates Earth Day at Governors Island on April 20, 2024 in New York City. Earth Day originally started in 1970 as a way to celebrate and raise awareness about environmental issues facing the planet.

5 Catholic Ways to Celebrate Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day and in response to the Holy Father’s message urging the faithful to take action in protecting the environment, here are five ways Catholics can celebrate Earth Day.