Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone: ‘Bishops Have a Conscience That We Also Have to Follow’

San Francisco shepherd discusses his decision to prohibit Speaker Pelosi from receiving Communion.

Archbishop Cordileone
Archbishop Cordileone (photo: Dennis Callahan / Archdiocese of San Francisco)

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone issued a letter May 20 announcing that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could not receive Holy Communion in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where her family’s primary residence is located.

The formal notification marked a new chapter in the archbishop’s dogged efforts to meet with Pelosi and encourage a conversion of heart that would lead to a repudiation of her decades-long defense of abortion rights. 

Archbishop Cordileone said his actions have been pastoral, not political. Likewise, he defended the move as a last resort that followed years of patient pastoral engagement with the speaker, matched by mounting alarm at her increasingly extremist embrace of abortion rights.

And while Pelosi’s supporters in and out of the Church have defended the primacy of personal conscience in such matters, the archbishop emphasized that his own conscience established that this fateful step was absolutely necessary. 

“I tremble,” he wrote in a pastoral letter he issued a year ago, “that if I do not forthrightly challenge Catholics under my pastoral care who advocate for abortion, both they and I have to answer to God for innocent blood.”

During a May 25 interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Archbishop Cordileone reviewed the steps he has taken and the spiritual practices he followed in advance of his controversial decision. 


In your notification directing archdiocesan priests to bar Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving the Eucharist, you wrote that your conscience had grappled with this matter for years. Why was it important to reference your own examination of conscience in this matter?

I wanted them to know that I was not acting precipitously or politically. 

That’s why it took years to sort things out in my own conscience and to do everything possible not to have to take this step. I wanted them to know the seriousness and sincerity with which I made this decision.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls on Catholics to “examine our conscience before the Lord’s cross, assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.” How did you assess your moral responsibility as Speaker Pelosi’s bishop?

That’s precisely what I did. I tried to engage her in conversation, and I did have some opportunities to do that earlier on. I formed my conscience with Church teaching and the guidance we were given on how to approach this by Cardinal Ratzinger, in the letter he sent to the U.S. bishops in 2004.

I also consulted with a spectrum of Church leaders whom I respect for their wisdom, integrity and pastoral sensitivity and could offer a variety of perspectives on the situation. The goal is to exhaust all possibilities until you reach the end of the road and this becomes the last resort. 


Your assessment was accompanied by “prayer and fasting.” Why?

It opened me up to working with God’s grace and helping me form my conscience. Because of that time spent in prayer and fasting, God brought me to the point of becoming absolutely certain that I needed to do this. That would not have happened otherwise. 


Your declaration was issued after the speaker’s advocacy for codifying the Roe v. Wade decision into federal law became “more extreme and aggressive.” Would you clarify your pastoral evaluation of this behavior and why it galvanized you to take action?

There is a spiritual battle going on. The push for abortion has become more and more aggressive. It was initially presented as a necessary evil. “Legal, safe and rare” was the old cliché. Then they started speaking about “reproductive health”: It’s not a matter of choice; it is part of health care.

Then it became celebrated. When New York state passed its new abortion law in 2019, the top of the World Trade Center was lit up pink. And now, the misnamed Women’s Health Protection Act would essentially give unfettered access to abortion for all nine months of pregnancy. 

So I realized that I had to be more assertive and respond to this. I made it very clear this is not a sanction; it has to do with sacramental discipline.

My conscience was also guided by the three points that Pope Francis enunciated in his apostolic constitution with which he promulgated the revised Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, which is on penal sanctions. This addresses the justice issue, repairing scandal, and trying to move erring Catholics to conversion. 

Taking a public action like this is particularly necessary when there’s scandal involved. I have been receiving letters about this since I became archbishop of San Francisco, and I always responded that conversion is better than exclusion: The person has to be engaged in dialogue, and there are a lot of factors that have to be weighed. 

The bishop has to weigh the good to be attained and the evil to be avoided. He must consider the possible negative consequences of such an action that could cause further divisions in the Church. 

After considering all of this, I came to the point when I had no honest response to people who said I needed to take this kind of action.


Catholics who reject Church teaching often cite their conscience to support their position and are accorded due respect. But you did not receive the same consideration when you cited your conscience in your letter explaining the decision to bar Pelosi from Communion. Has respect for “conscience” become a placeholder for tolerance of dissent and moral relativism?

Bishops have a conscience that we also have to follow, and people forget that. But the bigger problem is a misunderstanding of what conscience is and that respect for individual conscience is often approached selectively. People think that examining their conscience means deciding for themselves what is right or wrong.

That’s not correct. We form our conscience by understanding objectively what is right and wrong. And the role of our conscience is to decide what the right thing is to do in a concrete situation, in light of what is right or wrong.


You denied that you were “weaponizing the Eucharist” for political purposes and said you hoped to see the speaker remain in her office as “an advocate for life.” The pro-life movement has welcomed many improbable converts, among them Bernard Nathanson, the former atheist and founder of NARAL. Must we dare to pray for a miracle? 

That is why I have been asking people all over the country to pray and fast for our speaker of the House with the “Roses and Rosaries for Nancy” campaign. This cuts through partisan politics; it’s the way of love. Praying for her spiritual best interests is what we are doing here. 


The U.S. bishops recently debated ways to address the confusion and scandal caused by pro-abortion Catholic lawmakers and issued a letter calling for better catechesis on the Eucharist as the source and summit of Christian life. What remains to be accomplished?

A lot remains to be accomplished. When John Kerry was campaigning for president and we went through the same debate, I realized then that people don’t understand what it means to receive Holy Communion, and we needed a huge catechetical effort. 

We issued a letter then, but I don’t know how much effect it had because many Catholics still don’t believe in the Real Presence.

That’s why I issued my own pastoral letter a year ago. 

I explained what it means to be properly disposed to receive Holy Communion, especially with regard to the abortion question, and cited the basic principles about moral cooperation in evil.

The U.S. bishops have issued a second letter on what we call “Eucharistic Coherence,” which coincides with our Eucharistic Revival project to try to reignite Eucharistic faith.

We have to realize, though, that catechesis involves more than what is taught with words. The most essential part is how we worship. 

Our worship has to convey our belief, and too often we treat the Holy Eucharist with a casualness that alarms me at times. We need to offer a more reverent and beautiful liturgy and promote that sense of awe. 

A lot of parishes are promoting adoration now, and people need to be properly formed for that, as well.

We need to revive penitential practices. Fasting an hour before receiving Holy Communion should be the minimum. 

People should do more fasting when they can, to accompany prayer for special intentions. 

Better catechesis, promoting more reverent and beautiful worship of the one true God, and recapturing penitential discipline are the three spokes to this revival of Eucharistic faith. 


Will your declaration barring the speaker from Communion in the archdiocese apply elsewhere in the U.S.? 

In principle, it follows the person, but it is also up to each bishop, who has jurisdiction in his own diocese. No two situations are the same, and bishops may reach different conclusions. 


Last year, Pope Francis signed a new provision (1379§4) of canon law stipulating that a person who deliberately administers a sacrament to those who are prohibited from receiving it will face suspension. How would this law apply if another bishop permits the speaker to receive Communion?

Again, it is up to the bishop to impose that.

This canon is carefully worded. It is not an automatic suspension; the suspension is not incurred by the act itself. 

Rather, the canon calls upon the bishop to impose the suspension, so it is up to the bishop to do so.

Here again the bishop must weigh all the factors involved and may come to the judgment not to impose the suspension. 

For example, I would say there is a big difference between a priest or lay minister who felt intimidated or confused about what to do in a particular situation when faced with an individual barred from Holy Communion versus someone who is being openly defiant.


Some of your critics have accused you of opposing Pope Francis’ teaching on Church discipline governing reception of the Eucharist, yet you cited the Holy Father’s statements in your declaration. What is the source of the confusion on this point? 

People want to read things into what Pope Francis says in order to justify their own position. 

Pope Francis sometimes says things that can be interpreted one way or another, so you have to look at everything he has said together. We need to approach his words [on this subject] that way, as well as in light of the whole magisterial tradition of the Church.


In your letter to local clergy, you noted that the priesthood was never about being comfortable. Now that the Catholic faith is increasingly at odds with U.S. culture, does this loss of social standing give the Church the freedom to be prophetic, less worried about “losing our seat at the table”? 

There is certainly more urgency to being prophetic now.

But being prophetic also means being true to who we are.

You can appear prophetic so that people will admire you, and yet you may be what the Old Testament called a “false prophet.”

We are prophetic when we are true to who we are and what we believe. If this brings opprobrium from powerful sectors of our society, well, bring it on. 

We need to be faithful to what we believe, and that is what will open people’s hearts to Christ.


As you predicted, your declaration has provoked a wave of personal attacks on you. Where do you find inspiration for what lies ahead?

We have so many examples of people in our Church, living and deceased, who give us inspiration.

A few weeks ago, I hosted a bishop from Africa whose diocese is being decimated by terrorists. There are a million displaced people in Nigeria because of this.

Blessed Stanley Rother, who was beatified a couple of years ago, is another source of inspiration for me. A friend of mine who knew Stanley’s cousin told me about him, about this priest who was going back to a mission in Guatemala even though he knew he would be killed. A booklet on his life is entitled, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run.

He was a regular guy like me and probably grew up in similar circumstances. He had the courage to be with his people and went back to defend them. I am not facing anywhere near what he faced. So when I put things in perspective, whatever I have to suffer is quite minor by comparison. 

Blessed Stanley, the Church’s martyrs and saints, like Pope St. John Paul II, all give me inspiration.


Setting aside the media buzz and political pushback prompted by your notification, what’s at the heart of your message to the speaker? 

I sense a real maternal heart. She speaks so fondly of the five children she gave birth to in six years. She is a great champion of the poor in so many other ways. So this is an appeal to champion the poor who are the most vulnerable, in the womb, and their mothers, who are often alone and afraid. My hope is that, in this way, she will come back to the fullness of her Catholic faith.