Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has formally barred Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving Holy Communion “until such time as you publically [sic] repudiate your advocacy for the legitimacy of abortion and confess and receive absolution of this grave sin in the sacrament of Penance.” His decision was communicated not only via a direct letter to Speaker Pelosi, who resides in the archdiocese, but also in separate correspondences to the priests and laity of San Francisco.
Here are some significant takeaways from the decision and the reasons behind it.
It’s Pastoral, Not Political
During 2021’s months-long controversy over whether the U.S. bishops should issue a document explicitly prohibiting pro-abortion Catholic politicians from receiving Holy Communion, a common refrain against such a move was to insist that it would be inherently political, not pastoral. The logic went that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as a national body centered in Washington, D.C., and with an active role in American public life, was not in position to make what was fundamentally a decision not about public policy, but the spiritual care of individual Catholics. Such a decision, these voices insisted, could only be made by said individuals’ local bishop, and only then in a decidedly pastoral key.
Well, that’s exactly what has happened in San Francisco.
In a letter to Speaker Pelosi, but also in his correspondences to the priests and lay faithful of the archdiocese, Archbishop Cordileone goes to great lengths to lay out the pastoral approach he has taken, which ultimately resulted in the measure taken today. He notes that although he has received many letters over the years calling for some form of public reproachment of pro-abortion Catholic politicians like Speaker Pelosi, he has consistently held 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.”
Regarding Speaker Pelosi, those efforts have clearly been made. The two have spoken about the dissonance between her public support for abortion and her Catholic faith previously, something Archbishop Cordileone acknowledges and expresses his gratitude for in his letter to the speaker. But since September 2021, when Speaker Pelosi announced that she would push forward a bill to enshrine extreme abortion-access measures into federal law, the archbishop notes that he has attempted to speak with the archdiocesan resident about her public advocacy for abortion access on five separate occasions, most recently on May 4. In each instance, he has received no reply.
As a result, Archbishop Cordileone has concluded that “there is nothing more that can be done at this point to help the Speaker understand the seriousness of the evil her advocacy for abortion is perpetrating and the scandal she is causing.” The archbishop notes that he “finds no pleasure whatsoever in fulfilling my pastoral duty here,” adding that he has been guided by the three pastoral motives pointed to in Pope Francis’ recent revisions of canon law: responding to the demands of justice, moving the offending party to conversion, and repairing the scandal caused.
He also acknowledges that he has struggled with what he should do regarding this pastoral situation “for many years now,” though he notes that today’s decision is the fruit of “years of prayer, fasting, and consultation with a broad spectrum of Catholic leaders” and that he is at peace with what he has decided.
With such a clear commitment to dialogue and persuasion, it will be noteworthy to see how those who adamantly opposed the USCCB pushing for any kind of nationwide prohibition on the grounds that it would be “political” respond to Archbishop Cordileone’s pastoral approach and the decision that came from it.
It’s Consistent With Pope Francis
A talking point that will likely be pushed by those who disagree with Archbishop Cordileone’s decision will be that it deviates from the pastoral example Pope Francis has recently set with regards to pro-abortion Catholic politicians. For instance, we’re likely to hear a lot in the coming days about how the Holy Father says he has never knowingly denied a pro-abortion politician Communion, or how he apparently told pro-abortion President Joe Biden that he is a “good Catholic” and should continue receiving Communion.
Of course, those framings of Pope Francis’ own pastoral approach are misleading in themselves. We don’t actually know what the Pope said to President Biden, and we know that he maintains someone who has broken communion with the Church through their commitment to grave evil should not be receiving the Eucharist, as this amounts to “a total contradiction.”
In fact, Archbishop Cordileone’s measure is in many ways inspired by Pope Francis, to whom he makes frequent reference in his letters to Speaker Pelosi, archdiocesan priests and the San Francisco faithful. Particularly noteworthy is that the archbishop’s decision flows in part from Pope Francis’ recent revision of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, the Church’s legislation on penal sanction, promulgated in Pascite Gregem Dei. Although Archbishop Cordileone is not issuing a penal sanction on Speaker Pelosi, and is instead making a public declaration that she is “obstinately preserving in manifest grave sin” according to Canon 915, he says that the Pope’s revisions to canon law emphasize the importance of “insuring the integrity of the Church’s sacramental life.” For instance, the canon punishes by suspension one who “administers a sacrament to those who are prohibited from receiving it.”
The takeaway is that Pope Francis’ pastoral example is not that no one should ever be denied Communion, as some will likely falsely claim. Instead, it’s that bishops should make such decisions as pastors, not as politicians. And again, it seems like that’s what has happened in San Francisco.
It’s ‘Repairing the Scandal Caused’
One of the pastoral motives cited by Pascite Gregem Dei that Archbishop Cordielone says has guided his decision is “repairing the scandal caused.” And in his various correspondences, he makes clear that the grave problem of Speaker Pelosi’s very public advocacy for abortion access is not only that it promotes such an evil practice, but that it sows confusion among the faithful and the wider public about just what the Church teaches regarding abortion.
In fact, the archbishop takes significant issue not only with the fact that Speaker Pelosi has become such a forceful advocate for abortion access, but that she has repeatedly referred to her Catholic faith as a justification for doing so. For instance, in her May 4 comments to The Hill, she not only grounded her support for abortion in her status as a “devout Catholic,” she also described Pope Francis and the Church’s teaching against abortion as an “appalling” invasion of an issue of a “personal nature.”
Archbishop Cordileone’s decision will likely generate attention from the national press, which some will point to in an effort to characterize his motives as political. Instead, the conversation that this will generate is an indication of both the fact that political actions are moral and that the widespread scandal caused by Catholic politicians who obstinately persist in advancing moral evils must be publicly addressed, especially by those who are bound to be “concerned for all the Christian faithful entrusted to their care” (Canon 383).
It’s a Spiritual Battle
Archbishop Cordileone is deeply aware that this decision will not help him — or the Catholic Church — win any popularity contests in deeply progressive San Francisco, especially at a time when Catholic churches are already being targeted for violence with the likely overturn of Roe v. Wade on the horizon. “These attacks may now likely increase,” he wrote to his priests. “But for us, as faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, this is a cause for rejoicing, for the only reason this is happening is due to the Catholic Church’s consistent defense of the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, and especially at its beginning in the womb of the mother.”
“I am convinced that this is a time that God is calling us to live the last beatitude,” the archbishop continues before quoting Mark 5:11-12: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
The archbishop also makes clear that the Church is engaged in what is essentially “a spiritual battle.” For this reason, he instructs San Francisco priests to preach about the grave evil of abortion “with great pastoral sensitivity” and to continue to promote services that assist women and their children, “both during the pregnancy and for years after the birth of the child,” and also programs that support women wounded by abortion. “This is not time to be intimated into silence,” he writes.
Archbishop Cordileone also urges his priests to promote the archdiocese’s consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and other spiritual practices like the daily Rosary, fasting on Fridays, and spending one hour a week in adoration.
“What we are facing in this particular moment of history is a powerful reminder to us that the Priesthood is not for the faint-hearted,” he concludes in his letter to the priests. “Of course, it never was. But for a long time, up until recently, we lived in a society that allowed us to imagine that it was. Let us not fool ourselves any longer.”
Its Wider Implications Are Unknown
Many will connect Archbishop Cordileone’s decision regarding Speaker Pelosi with another prominent pro-abortion Catholic politician: President Joe Biden, whose support for abortion has only become more extreme since moving into the Oval Office. The implication may be that because Archbishop Cordileone has moved to prohibit Speaker Pelosi from coming to Communion until she publicly repents, the same thing should necessarily happen to President Biden and other pro-abortion Catholic politicians.
Of course, that’s anything but guaranteed. As Archbishop Cordileone’s approach has demonstrated, the decision to prohibit a pro-abortion politician from Communion is one that the local bishop must make within the context of a pastoral dynamic. The question of whether President Biden will continue to be allowed to receive Communion despite his consistent and now-heightened support for abortion is ultimately one that only Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., can answer.
That being said, San Francisco’s archbishop has demonstrated that one outcome of such a pastoral approach can indeed be prohibiting a politician who consistently manifests formal cooperation with a grave evil like abortion from receiving Communion, opening the door for other bishops to follow his bold example.