The Archdiocese of Washington has said Cardinal Wilton Gregory’s position on not denying communion to anyone “has not changed” following the decision of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone to prohibit House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from the sacrament over her support for abortion.
A statement on Gregory’s behalf sought to present an apparent decision by the cardinal not to honor the determination of Pelosi’s home bishop as “no change” to archdiocesan policy and side step the furore over Archbishop Cordileone’s pastoral decision to invoke canon 915 in relation to the speaker.
But how firm is Gregory’s decision, and what does it mean for episcopal communion for the U.S. bishops?
The capital archdiocese was forced to issue a statement Monday, after a communications error led to the Washington Examiner being sent an internal email acknowledging the intention to “ignore” media requests for comment on Pelosi’s situation.
A clarification followed, stating that the cardinal would not be making any “new” comment on the situation and that while Cordileone’s decision “was his to make in the Archdiocese of San Francisco,” Gregory had not instructed his clergy to refuse communion “to anyone,” pointing to a previous statement Gregory had made last year.
Although the archdiocese appeared to play down the significance of the statement, the effective announcement that Cardinal Gregory will not honor the determination of Pelosi’s proper pastor represents a significant departure from other U.S. bishops who have lined up to support Cordileone, including Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif., where Pelosi has a third home.
In a statement to The Pillar last week, Vasa said that he had instructed his clergy to honor the determination of Pelosi’s home bishop when she was in the diocese and that “if the Archbishop prohibited someone from receiving Holy Communion then that restriction followed the person and that the pastor was not free to ignore it.”
The statement on Gregory’s behalf is also a breach with the policy of his predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who in 2012 wrote that he would honor any such determination by a politician’s home bishop because he “respected the role of the local church and the ministry of the individual bishop as shepherd of the church entrusted to his care.”
“A decision regarding the refusal of Holy Communion to an individual is one that should be made only after clear efforts to persuade and convince the person that their actions are wrong and bear moral consequences,” Wuerl said at the time, making clear that this determination was to be done “in the home diocese where the bishops and priests, the pastors of souls, engage the members of their flock in this type of discussion.”
Although the bishops of the United States spent much of last year engaged in a public, at times fractious debate over when, if ever, prominent Catholic politicians should be denied communion in line with the Church’s sacramental discipline, there was agreement — reinforced by Rome — that any such decision could not be a matter of national policy, but was properly the individual pastoral discernment of the local diocesan bishop.
It is unclear how firm Gregory’s apparent decision not to honor the authority of Pelosi’s own bishop is; the statement from the Washington archdiocese appeared to be a crisis response, after the comms error made clear the original strategy had been to say nothing and ignore questions.
The statement from the archdiocese was somewhat narrowly worded, saying only what Gregory had not done (instruct his clergy to deny anyone communion) and that his thinking on the general subject had not moved. It did not say it would not move in the future.
While this was presented as “no change” by the archdiocesan comms team, if it proves Gregory’s settled answer it represents an effective U-turn on archdiocesan policy, and a break with what was the national episcopal consensus.
Press questions in the middle of a frantic news cycle to one side, Gregory may have to consider the wider effects of holding to that answer.
While Pelosi is a prominent politician, and the Church nationally remains at the focus of criticism and protest from militant abortion advocates following the leaking of a draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, a final determination to decline to honor Cordileone’s pastoral discernment could set a dramatic precedent among U.S. bishops.
Laying out his rationale for prohibiting Pelosi from receiving communion for the time being, Cordileone made clear that he had sought to engage the speaker in a pastoral dialogue over a period of years, even while her advocacy for abortion became more strident.
The archbishop concluded that concern for Pelosi’s spiritual health, and the scandal created by her actions, required him to act, even if it was an action he would have preferred not to have taken — invoking canon 915 and declaring Pelosi to be “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.”
Gregory deciding to, in effect, reject Cordileone’s assessment would not appear to dispute the “manifest” public nature of Pelosi’s situation: it doesn’t seem possible to argue that her status is more public in her home archdiocese than in Washington, where she is one of the most visible members of the government.
Instead, Gregory would appear to be rejecting the premise that Pelosi’s situation is gravely sinful. While he might prefer not to make such a positive determination for those exclusively under his own jurisdiction, splitting with the speaker’s proper pastor on the issue sets up a situation in which something can be considered gravely sinful in one American diocese, but not another.
By saying that Cordileone’s decisions are “his to make in San Francisco,” while implicitly stating that they would not be respected in Washington, Cardinal Gregory may find his brother bishops view his actions more through the lens of episcopal communion than the politics of abortion.
Introducing a kind of divide on moral teaching, even tacitly, would represent a sea-change in the relationship between American bishops, and could raise fears that the doctrinal divisions currently splitting the bishops of Europe over the German synodal process might arrive in this country.
The Archdiocese of Washington has, in the last few years, developed a reputation among journalists, secular and religious, for not responding to press questions on controversial subjects, and refusing to engage may continue to be the preferred option in the immediate future.
However, when Gregory arrives at the U.S. bishops’ tri-annual retreat next month, he might face tough questions from his brother bishops about his response, and the wider effects it could have on their own communion. Ignoring them will not be an option.