Beyond Pelosi: The Wider Implications of the Speaker’s Communion Ban

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s remedial measure is the latest chapter, and certainly not the last, in the U.S. bishops’ struggle to address the scandal caused by pro-abortion Catholic politicians.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., holds her weekly press conference at the U.S. Capitol on May 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. Pelosi spoke on Sweden and Finland's recent application to join the NATO alliance, inflation and the baby formula shortage.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., holds her weekly press conference at the U.S. Capitol on May 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. Pelosi spoke on Sweden and Finland's recent application to join the NATO alliance, inflation and the baby formula shortage. (photo: Kevin Dietsch / Getty)

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s decision to bar Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi from receiving Holy Communion over her consistent and increasingly extreme abortion advocacy was a specific pastoral intervention, a local bishop disciplining a local Catholic out of concern for her spiritual well-being and that of the flock entrusted to him. 

But the decision, handed down May 20 in a letter to the speaker made public by the San Francisco archbishop, is also the latest installment in the U.S. episcopacy’s long struggle in the decades since Roe v. Wade took effect to adequately address the grave scandal of Catholic politicians who openly contravene the Church’s clear teaching to promote legalized abortion — and, as in Pelosi’s case, sometimes even publicly distort Catholic moral teaching to justify doing so.

Archbishop Cordileone’s intervention is noteworthy because it’s largely a break from the status quo. With some notable exceptions, the U.S. bishops’ general approach to pro-abortion Catholic politicians has been exemplified by a prioritization of dialogue and an avoidance of conflict, especially the possibility of withholding the Eucharist in accordance with canon law, which states in Canon 915 that persons “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”

This, for instance, was the approach advocated for by the now-disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who publicly misrepresented a letter from then-Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the topic to the U.S. bishops in 2004, notably in the midst of pro-abortion Catholic politician John Kerry’s presidential campaign. The letter explicitly stated that a pro-abortion Catholic politician “must” be refused Communion if private warnings from his or her pastor have led to no change in their public advocacy, but McCarrick never presented it to his brother bishops, leaving the impression that it contained no explicit directives, which was reflected in the document “Catholics in Political Life” issued by the bishops at the time.

With the 2020 election of Joe Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president but an open proponent of abortion, the topic returned to the forefront of U.S. ecclesial discourse in 2021, and so did arguments against barring prominent pro-abortion Catholic politicians from Communion.

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, for instance, wrote that such measures “weaponized” the Eucharist “for political ends.” When asked about offering Communion to President Biden, the president’s archbishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., described even the possibility of withholding Communion from a politician as akin to having a conversation “with a gun on the table” and not conducive to a productive relationship. Once again, the USCCB issued a document, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” that included general principles about the importance of visible communion with the Church and its teaching to receive the Eucharist, as well as the need for diocesan bishops to “remedy situations that involve public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law,” but did not draw any specific attention to Catholic politicians who advocate for intrinsic grave evils like abortion. 

 

When Dialogue Fails

But while some prelates maintain that conversation is the only legitimate pastoral tool the Church has with pro-abortion Catholic politicians, others point out that this strategy has failed to change hearts and minds, let alone the pro-abortion laws for which these politicians have advocated or the scandal caused by their words and deeds.

“I don’t see any fruits of that,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, who characterized endless conversation with dissident Catholic politicians as “appeasement.” “Certainly, we should dialogue, and that’s where we start, but you reach a point where you have to say, well, dialogue does not seem to be working.”

That seems to be the conclusion Archbishop Cordileone reached in San Francisco. As he explained in his letter to Pelosi, but also in separate correspondences to the laity and priests of the archdiocese, he holds that “conversion is always better than exclusion, and before any such action can be taken it must be preceded by sincere and diligent efforts at dialogue and persuasion.” In fact, the archbishop had met with Pelosi multiple times over the years to discuss the incommensurability of her public actions with the faith she professed.

But when the speaker announced in September that she would champion the misleadingly named Women’s Health Protection Act, which aims to enshrine abortion access well beyond the scope of Roe into federal law, and then rebuffed multiple requests from her archbishop to meet, he concluded that the “time has come” to publicly prohibit the Catholic politician from receiving Communion prior to her repentance.

 

Increased Abortion Extremism

Pelosi isn’t alone in her increased abortion extremism. With full-fledged support for abortion access becoming a de facto litmus test for the Democratic Party at the national level, several prominent Catholic politicians have only become more extreme in their support for the intrinsically evil act, which according to the most recent annual data ended the lives of nearly 630,000 unborn children in 2019 alone.

President Biden has gone from a pro-life stance at the beginning of his political career, to being “personally opposed” but supportive of abortion access during much of his time as a U.S. senator, to most recently dropping his decades-long opposition to federal funding for abortion during the 2020 Democratic primaries. Last year, he even suggested that he no longer believes life begins at conception

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey has always had a more mixed record on abortion than his staunchly pro-life father, Robert Casey, the former governor of Pennsylvania. But after supporting a 20-week national ban on abortion as recently as 2018, the self-described “pro-life Democrat” announced earlier this year that he would support the Pelosi-backed federal abortion expansion.

Stephen White, director of the Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America, said that years of “fruitless dialogue” between bishops and “pro-choice” Catholic politicians have only led the latter to become “emboldened and convinced of their own invulnerability.”

“This pastoral approach has not only failed to convince a single politician of the wrongness of supporting abortion,” White told the Register, “it has succeeded in convincing many millions of Americans (on both sides of the issue) that the bishops don’t actually believe what they teach about the evil of abortion, about the Eucharist, or both.”

 

‘Usurping’ the Bishops

According to Archbishop Joseph Naumann, the Church’s failure to apply its teaching regarding Eucharistic discipline and coherence has allowed pro-abortion Catholic politicians to effectively “usurp the role of the bishop, as they begin to teach what is acceptable as a Catholic or not.” The archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, experienced this firsthand in 2008, when then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, vetoed a pro-life bill, citing her faith in the process. As a result, Archbishop Naumann publicly told Sebelius not to present herself for Communion because “it became apparent that she would have been happy to keep conversing, but she was not being moved to change in any way.”

Archbishop Naumann was motivated to prevent Sebelius, who subsequently served as secretary of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration, from committing sacrilege by receiving the Eucharist while not in communion with the Church, but also to limit the potential for scandal. He described Sebelius at the time as “the most prominent Catholic in the state of Kansas” who had a great degree of influence and was leading other Catholics astray.

When pro-abortion Catholic politicians “make a point of trying to justify their positions by saying they are good Catholics in the process,” Archbishop Naumann said, “that’s when they have crossed another line.”

While direct causation is difficult to establish, prominent Catholics publicly citing their faith to back abortion are certainly not helping remedy widespread confusion on the issue. According to a survey conducted March 7-13 and released May 17  by the Pew Research Center, 30% of Catholics who go to Mass weekly believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, a figure that jumps to 56% when including all self-identified Catholics.

 

Repairing Scandal

Archbishop Naumann said that the decision to bar Sebelius “pretty much shut down communication with her,” despite continued efforts to reach out to her. But it did create an opening to repair some of the scandal caused by her false witness.

“It opened up a lot of opportunities for education, because people began to ask, ‘Why would you do this? What was the rationale?’ I think it allows us bishops to employ our role as teacher.” Bishop Paprocki said his experience has been similar in the Diocese of Springfield, where he prohibited two Illinois state legislative leaders from receiving Communion after they promoted a bill describing abortion as a “fundamental right” in 2019, and he has also upheld the previously decided Communion prohibition applying to Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin. “When action like this is taken, it helps make it clear what the Church’s teaching actually is,” he told the Register. He added that with the national attention Archbishop Cordileone’s decision regarding Speaker Pelosi is getting, it may be something “that other politicians would think about as well.”

In fact, Bishop Paprocki attributes the demise of pro-life Catholics among Democrats in part to the bishops’ unwillingness to address the issue more directly in the past. Catholic Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who is in the midst of a heated primary in his Texas district, is the lone self-identified “pro-life Democrat” in the House today. There were as many as 64 as recently as 2009. Catholic Democrats have either been forced out of office for not being pro-abortion enough, as was the case with former Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who was primaried over his pro-life stance, or they’ve adapted to the changing reality of abortion politics in the party.

“I think what we’ve seen is a situation where a number of Catholic politicians over the years have pretty brazenly said that they consider themselves to be good Catholics and they’re going to be pro-abortion. And that has led to a situation where other politicians say, ‘Well, if they can say that, I can say that, too.’”

With Roe likely to be overturned within a month and the status quo on legalized abortion upended, it remains to be seen if more bishops follow the lead of the likes of Archbishops Cordileone and Naumann and Bishop Paprocki as battles over abortion legislation continue to dominate at the state and federal level. Several other bishops have offered their support for Archbishop Cordileone’s actions, and Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California, where Pelosi has a second home, has said he will enforce the archbishop’s decision there, as well.

 

Canonical Reinforcement

However, regarding Speaker Pelosi receiving Communion in Washington, Cardinal Gregory’s office stated that “Cardinal Gregory’s position has not changed from what he has said in the past” regarding pro-abortion Catholic politicians receiving Communion and that he has not instructed the priests of the archdiocese “to refuse Communion to anyone” — a break from his predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, whose policy it was to respect the decisions made by a politician’s home bishop, given that local pastors were better able to make these determinations.

Bishop Paprocki acknowledges that not every bishop may find publicly prohibiting a pro-abortion politician from Communion to be an effective strategy, even if they agree that such people shouldn’t be receiving because they are, in fact, out of communion with Christ and his Church. But for those inspired by Archbishop Cordileone’s decision and considering something similar in their own diocese, recent changes to canon law may offer them support, as Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk told the Register.

In January 2021, the Holy See issued a new version of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, which deals explicitly with penal sanctions in the Church. In his apostolic constitution accompanying the changes, Pascite Gregem Dei, or “Feed the Flock of God,” Pope Francis writes of the growing “lack of understanding of the intimate link that exists in the Church between the practice of charity and the practice of penal discipline whenever circumstances require,” according to an automated translation of the Latin text. 

The Holy Father also writes that the failure to address errant behavior in a timely fashion “makes correction more difficult, and causes many scandals and confusion among the faithful to spread,” making the infliction of penal sanction necessary.

“Some people want to say that disciplinary matters are somehow contrary to the Church’s pastoral care, and Francis explicitly says ‘No, that’s not the case,’” said Father Pietrzyk, a canon lawyer who advised Archbishop Cordileone on some of the canonical questions surrounding his decision.

Strictly speaking, Archbishop Cordileone did not issue a canonical penalty to Pelosi, but rather identified that Canon 915 applies to her and, accordingly, that she should not present herself for Eucharistic Communion, nor should ordinary or extraordinary ministers offer it to her. But Father Pietrzyk said the Holy Father’s changes to Book VI have “added teeth to Canon 915” by adding a new canonical penalty in 1379§4 for anyone who gives Communion to those who are not capable of receiving it, which he said the Holy See has clarified includes those to whom Canon 915 applies.

“What this does is it reinforces that the Holy See has not invalidated Canon 915,” the priest said, “but in fact has made it much stronger.”

Father Pietrzyk said dialogue is important, but “there’s a point at which that comes to an end.” He hopes that in other cases similar to Speaker Pelosi’s, in which “it’s very clear that Catholic politicians are using their Catholic faith and their Catholic identity to propose ideas that are contrary to the teaching of the faith,” “more bishops would enter into disciplinary action or more deliberate confrontation of those policies.”

Given the bishops’ collective track record on the matter, White at The Catholic Project isn’t necessarily holding his breath.

“Whether this decision is the first of others like it,” he said, “or whether this proves a one-off that stokes a lot of outrage online but changes little on the ground remains to be seen.”