Communion and Catholic Politicians: US Bishops on Upholding Church Teaching

Speaking to the Register in Baltimore, several bishops provided their take on errant lawmakers.

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The pressing question of how to respond to politicians in open defiance of Catholic teachings on issues like abortion and marriage came up in Baltimore during the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting.

Several bishops explained to the Register the factors that need to be taken into consideration when a bishop responds to a politician’s flagrant defiance of Church teachings.

The question is timely, as several Democrats running in the 2020 presidential election who identify as Catholic have backed taxpayer-funded abortion up until birth.

For example, former Vice President Joe Biden recently embraced taxpayer funding of abortion despite calling himself a Catholic and opposing it in the past. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a 2020 presidential candidate for her party, went further, saying that while she identifies as Catholic, she opposes the Church’s teaching on abortion, marriage and the all-male priesthood.

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, spoke on the floor of the spring meeting last Tuesday during a discussion of faithful citizenship. He urged his fellow bishops to be attentive to this question and take action when necessary.

“I think in the immigration issues and virtually all of the sanctity-of-life issues, too many of our Catholic politicians are not leading with faithful citizenship,” he said. “I think we as shepherds have to challenge that in all the ways that we need to.”  

Bishop Strickland particularly cited concern over presenting a consistent message to the faithful regarding Church teaching on these issues.

“I would ask us all the question of how we can call our politicians that claim to be Catholic, that want to be part of the Catholic community, to faithful citizenship, because until we bring them into the truth and living it with all the challenges that we face, I think many of the faithful don’t really see a consistent message,” he emphasized.

Bishop Strickland later discussed his comments with the Register, highlighting that it is the bishops’ duty to address issues that have to do with the sanctity of life.

“What I really tried to say as I intervened and talked about the sanctity of human life from conception until natural death — those are the grave issues, as far as I’m concerned. That’s what we need to focus on,” he said.

“The Church is about the salvation of souls; the instruments of the salvation of souls are what we call the deposit of faith. As bishops that’s what we need to be focusing on,” he continued. “There are tons of issues that are significant and need to be addressed, but I think our job is more: ‘Does it have to do with the sanctity of life?’”


Bishops as the ‘Guardians of the Faith’

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, spoke to the Register both generally about how bishops should respond to Catholic politicians flouting Church teaching and particularly about his recent decree against Illinois Catholic lawmakers receiving Communion after they voted for extreme pro-abortion legislation that recently was signed into law by the governor.

“Unfortunately, not just in Illinois, but in New York and other states, we see politicians who call themselves Catholic that are very much contrary to the Catholic Church,” he said. “They are not only acting contrary to the Church, but they’re saying the Church is wrong; they’re saying the Church is wrong about abortion; the Church is wrong about euthanasia; the Church is wrong about marriage and family life.”

“We bishops have to say No,” he urged. “We bishops are the ones who are the guardians of the faith, not the politicians. The politicians are not going to tell us to change our 2,000-year-old teachings that have been handed on to us from Jesus Christ; and so the successors of the apostles have to protect the deposit of the faith.”

Bishop Paprocki said that just as bishops should correct errant politicians, they should encourage the ones who vote in accordance with the faith, even in the face of opposition.

He said something “that has not gotten as much publicity” as his decree was the fact that he “talked to all the Catholic legislators in my diocese about these abortion bills when they were pending” and “asked them, in keeping with their faith, to vote against them.”

“I’m pleased to report that every Catholic politician in my diocese, both Democrat and Republican, did vote against these bills,” he said. The bishop commended these politicians in his column in the diocesan publication.

Addressing the denial of Holy Communion to politicians, Bishop Paprocki explained when such a move became necessary for him, particularly in singling out Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.

Some prominent bishops, however, disagree that pro-abortion-rights politicians should be barred from reception of Communion.

Speaking last week in Baltimore to Catholic News Agency, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich said that he thought it would be “counterproductive” to deny Holy Communion in his archdiocese to the Illinois legislators who championed that state’s extreme new abortion law.

“I think it would be counterproductive to impose sanctions, simply because they don’t change anybody’s minds, but it also takes away from the fact that an elected official has to deal with the judgment seat of God, not just the judgment seat of a bishop,” he told CNA. “I think that’s much more powerful.”



The Need for Prudence

Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, told the Register that the bishops have “an obligation as bishops to hold out what is the truth according to the doctrines of our Church, and we are to call everyone — all Catholics — to be accountable to that and, even at times, to repentance.”

He said that a bishop barring a politician from Communion is “a more individual case-by-case scenario.”

Bishop McKnight emphasized that “you first attempt to deal with them [politicians] individually rather than having a blanket statement that would preclude any individual,” citing the need for a “pastoral effort by a bishop to engage a Catholic who may be on the wrong side of the Catholic faith.”

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco said that this question has been a problem and “hot topic of discussion” for a “very long time.”

“The first problem we have to start with is catechesis about Holy Communion. What is the Eucharist? How many people understand what the Eucharist really is and what it means to receive Holy Communion?” he said.

“I think a lot of people see it as, ‘It’s a meal, so you’re welcoming people to the table and why would we exclude anyone?’” he continued. “We need to do a lot of catechesis that it’s the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. His sacrifice made present to us and our uniting our sacrifice with his — and that means following what he teaches in our lives; and if we fall down, that we avail ourselves of the sacrament of penance before we would receive again.”

“If people understand that and they understand the evil of abortion, they won’t have difficulty understanding why someone who advocates for abortion is not in a position to receive Communion,” he said.

The archbishop also said there was a need for “pastoral prudence” in handling situations of denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians because “in some cases it could make a situation worse, depending on the kind of action the bishop takes, or could make a situation worse if he doesn’t take any action at all.”

Archbishop Cordileone gave two examples to illustrate that point.

The first related to work he did in the chancery office in San Diego and the manner in which they addressed a pro-abortion Catholic woman running to be an assembly member in a San Diego district after she ran a pro-abortion advertisement. A Republican pro-life woman had been leading in the polls. After the Democrat’s ad, “the bishop immediately sent a letter to her invoking Canon 915 that she should not present herself to receive Communion and the letter became public,” causing a media firestorm.

“As a result, the polls started shifting, and the Democrat ended up getting elected, so that’s why there’s a wider picture that has to be surveyed,” Archbishop Cordileone explained.

And he pointed to the manner in which the late Cardinal Edward Egan of New York had discouraged pro-abortion Republican Rudy Giuliani from Communion for years through a private discussion and agreement, as a more “positive” example of how to take such a step. Their private understanding became public when Giuliani did present himself for Communion during a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“There are different ways to handle it: publicly, privately,” the archbishop concluded. “It always has to come out of some kind of a relationship of the bishop with the person in question and always with the view to the conversion of heart where the heart is hardened to the full truth of the faith and of the natural moral law. Conversion is much better than exclusion; sometimes exclusion is necessary to take in some circumstances.”


A Pro-Abortion Trend

Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, referenced his recent statement on the matter, in which he wrote to his diocese that “politicians who reside in the Catholic Diocese of Spokane and who obstinately persevere in their public support for abortion should not receive Communion without first being reconciled to Christ and the Church.”       

“I felt I needed to respond to that, and I think Bishop Paprocki … and Bishop Strickland were making the statement because we see this trend sweeping across our country,” Bishop Daly explained.

Bishop Daly specifically called out Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom as an example of this abortion extremism from Catholic politicians.

“Gov. Newsom, who claims to be a Catholic, had said that he invited women to come to California to have their abortions,” he emphasized. “Now, how a Catholic politician or someone who professes to be a Catholic can make a statement like that is very troubling because that is a clear statement.”

“I would put that in the category of ‘obstinately persevering.’ It’s not like someone who has said, ‘I disagree with this; I will try what I can. I won’t increase funding, but this is the lay of the land,’” the bishop noted. “But this is someone who just kind of boldly, obstinately, says: ‘I am standing in favor.’”

“I think the laypeople are asking us to address this. I know there’s not a consistent view on that as bishops,” but, Bishop Daly said, “we just can’t stand by silently.”

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based correspondent.