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Pastoral prohibition: How these bishops dealt with politicians and abortion

Bishops should work pastorally with Catholics, including pro-choice politicians, who are unable to receive the Eucharist, Pope Francis told reporters last week. They should remain close, compassionate, and tender, the pope said, recognizing that some Catholics “cannot receive Communion,” teaching the truth without condemnation.

The pope also said that while he has never denied Communion to anyone, he has never been aware of a pro-choice politician approaching him for the Eucharist.

His admission probably puts Pope Francis in the company of many fellow priests — While pro-choice politicians and Holy Communion are the subjects of fierce debate among U.S. bishops, few have announced publicly a decision to deny specific figures the Eucharist.

But in 2019, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois did exactly that. 

After the Illinois state legislature passed a bill that dramatically expanded legal protections for abortion, Paprocki issued a decree which prohibited two Catholic legislators: Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton from receiving the Eucharist in the Springfield diocese.

Paprocki is in a mostly unique position to talk about the discernment and pastoral process involved in deciding to prohibit a Catholic from receiving the Eucharist. He talked with The Pillar about those decisions. 


‘It did not come as a surprise’

The bishop told The Pillar that, just as Pope Francis urged last week, his decisions about the Eucharist were only one step — one moment —  in pastoral conversations that had begun quietly well before the decree made headlines.  

“There had been conversations going for a while,” Paprocki said. “My approach has been usually to have ongoing conversations privately.” 

“Prior to my decisions with regard to former Speaker Madigan and former Senate President Cullerton, I did have conversations with them. So that, when I finally did make the decision, it did not come as a surprise to them.”

Paprocki said conversations with politicians about abortion, among other issues, had begun shortly after he was appointed bishop of Illinois’ state capital in 2010. He said he aims in those conversations to challenge Catholic politicians to uphold Catholic doctrine — including the Church’s teaching that legal protections for abortion are unjust.

“In most cases, the politicians know what the Church teaches. So it's not a question of needing to catechize them. It’s not some kind of surprise to them that the Church teaches that abortion is a grave sin. The question is: how do you square the fact that you are a Catholic with your position promoting abortion? And that’s where you get different answers,” he said.

“Oftentimes, you get the classic answer — the one that was proposed by Mario Cuomo in 1984 at the University of Notre Dame. This was echoed by many Catholic politicians — ‘While I’m personally opposed to abortion, I can’t impose that belief on someone else.’”

Today, Paprocki said, he hears Catholic politicians veer from the language of personal opposition to abortion. 

“It’s shifted over the years. Instead of being sort of apologetic and saying, ‘well, abortion should be safe, legal, and rare,’ it’s become something where people are actually celebrating the fact of having had an abortion or promoting abortion,” he said.

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‘The integrity of the sacraments’

Paprocki said deciding to prohibit Catholics from receiving the Eucharist should come only after conversations and exhortations prove ineffective, and when a Catholic has become “obstinate,” and “persistent” — two conditions outlined in canon 915 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law.

The bishop described obstinance as “a level of stubbornness.”

“When it’s been pointed out that your policy position, for example, is contrary to Catholic teaching and a politician digs in and says, ‘Well, I'm sticking to my guns,’ well, that's obstinance, you know?” Paprocki explained.

Persistence, he said, from a canonical standpoint, is something enduring over an extended period of time, including advocacy for permissive abortion laws.

“A person newly elected to a state legislature who has never voted on any public issue like this before and then casts one vote in favor of pro-abortion legislation — well that, in my mind, would not qualify as obstinate persistence. But when you have a pattern of voting, that would be different.”

“With regard to Speaker Madigan and Senate President Cullerton, these were not one-time events,” the bishop said. Noting the lawmakers’ long-standing patterns of voting for pro-abortion legislation, the bishop said he warned them.

“I gave them the warning, which said that if you continue to promote these bills and they’re passed, then I will have to publicly say that you can’t go to Holy Communion in this diocese. And so they were well-warned and cautioned ahead of time.”

When Paprocki eventually said the politicians could not receive the Eucharist, he hoped it might change their minds.

“When I issued the decrees, I said that their point is to call people to conversion. And that they would be an opportunity for a change of heart,” the bishop said.

But in fact, neither politician has changed his position on abortion.

Madigan said in a 2019 statement that he had considered the warning, but was not swayed by it.

“After much deliberation and reflection, I made the decision to allow debate and a vote on the legislation,” the lawmaker said at the time.

“I believe it is more important to protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions, including women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest. With women’s rights under attack in an increasing number of states across the country, Illinois is now a leader in making sure women are protected and their rights are upheld,” he added.

The Pillar attempted to contact both Madigan and Cullerton to ask whether, in the years since the bishop’s decision, it had had more effect on them. Neither responded to questions.

Still, the bishop said he hopes his decisions will be “medicinal.“

“The hope is that a person will in fact want to go to Holy Communion. And then once they cease from being obstinately persistent in manifest grave sin, they must be readmitted. And so that certainly is the hope — that they would have that change of heart.”

Paprocki added that changing the lawmakers’ minds was only part of the reason he issued the decree.

“This is about the integrity of the sacraments,” the bishop said.

“When St. Paul talks about making yourself guilty of profaning the body and the blood of the Lord, we call that a sacrilege. If you receive Holy Communion while you are in the state of grave sin, you are compounding your sin with another sin that we call a sacrilege, which is also a mortal sin. So it’s for the good of the soul of the wrongdoer as well.”

“In my own conscience, I feel that if I did not properly enforce canon 915, I would be at least negligent, if not complicit, with those Catholic politicians who are promoting abortion,” Paprocki added. 

Among his considerations is the issue of scandal, which, he said, “is an action that leads others into committing the same sin.”

“If a politician is kind of on the fence about supporting some pro-abortion legislation, and is thinking to himself or herself that this is against Church teaching, and then sees other politicians voting in favor of pro-abortion legislation, with no consequences in the Church, that politician might think, ‘Well, I guess it’s ok if I do this too.’”

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‘That’s what people remember’

Bishop Paprocki told The Pillar that, in his view, bishops are not the only people charged with deciding who should be admitted to Holy Communion. He said canon 915 is “really directed to the person who is the ordinary and extraordinary minister of Holy Communion….and so in that regard, it’s not exclusively a decision of the bishop. Pastors can make that decision.”

Bishop Kevin Vann in 2017. Credit: Kim Tieu Thu via flickr. public domain.

When Bishop Kevin Vann, now Bishop of Orange, California, was a parish pastor in Illinois, he faced just such a decision.

Vann was pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Springfield, Illinois — the diocese now led by Paprocki. Among Vann’s parishioners was Senator Dick Durbin, who has long been outspoken in his support for legalized abortion, and had a house within the boundaries of Blessed Sacrament. 

Vann told The Pillar that because he spent his time in Washington, Durbin was not at the parish very often. 

“But he knew a lot of folks in the Parish of Blessed Sacrament; you know, his house was about five blocks from the Church.”

In 2004, Vann was contacted by a reporter from the Quincy Journal, a now-defunct local newspaper. The reporter wanted to know if Durbin’s pro-choice activism would prohibit him from Holy Communion — especially because the Catholic identity of presidential candidate John Kerry was making headlines that year.

“So I responded like what the pope said [last week]: that his position put him outside the communion of the Church — and that’s what the pope said the other day — and I said therefore I would be reticent to give him Communion.”

Durbin, who did not respond to questions from The Pillar, did not attend Mass at the parish after Vann’s statement, but the story “created a pretty big uproar,” the bishop recalled. 

Indeed, the prohibition made headlines across Illinois, and Vann found himself at the center of a national debate — not unlike the one now surrounding the issue.

But Vann said he did not intend to be provocative, or punitive. He saw the matter as a straightforward question for a pastor, he said — and still does.

“I have my training as a canonist,” the bishop said, “and my mother was an OB nurse. So I took care of preemies. So I have those babies in my mind,” he said.

The bishop recalled how surprised he was by the uproar.

“It’s interesting to reflect on what people remember you for. When my name comes up in Springfield, that’s what people remember. Not that I was pastor of Blessed Sacrament, or that I helped rebuild that parish, but this,” he told The Pillar.

There have been personal consequences that stuck with him, he said.

“A lot of folks supported me, but I did lose some friendships over that. I’ve built some bridges back, but that was what happened at the time.”


A matter of conscience

Paprocki said that while he is one of few bishops known publicly to prohibit pro-choice politicians from receiving the Eucharist, he is aware of other bishops engaged in private conversations with lawmakers. 

He added that, while some commentators have speculated that bishops who apply canon 915 might face ecclesiastical pushback, he has not experienced any.   

Paprocki also said that he believes the bishops should be unified when they vote on a statement regarding “Eucharistic coherence” — a topic on the agenda for the November bishops’ meeting, after contentious debate over the subject during a virtual meeting of bishops in June.

“There was concern that making some statement would go against the unity of the bishops’ conference,” Paprocki said.

“If there’s a lack of unity, it’s unfortunate, if there are bishops who do not believe or do not want to enforce the Church’s teaching with regard to the worthy reception of holy Communion.”

In a letter addressed to USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez earlier this year, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that “The [U.S.] bishops should affirm as a Conference that ‘those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life.’”

The cardinal urged the bishops to be united in making statements making it clear that Christians “are also called to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism.”

And he urged them to learn from other bishops’ conferences.

On that front, Paprocki pointed out “the Aparecida document of 2007, of which then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was a big part.”

“If we were to simply quote that document, and the very strong statement the bishops of Latin America made about pro-abortion politicians not receiving Holy Communion, and calling them to ‘Eucharistic coherence,’ that would be a very strong statement for us to say that we are united with bishops of Latin America.”

But apart from statements, Paprocki acknowledged that few sitting bishops have publicly prohibited Catholics from receiving the Eucharist.

Paprocki said he sees a few reasons for that: antinomianism, among them, “and then you get some cases where there’s the sense that people are afraid of being legalists. I think some of it is also a lack of courage— simply not wanting confrontation, not wanting a media matter that calls a lot of attention.

“And then I think you get cases where people say this is not a good strategy to get people to change their votes — as if this is all a strategy to get pro-choice politicians to change their votes.”

“And I would say in response this is not a strategy,” Paprocki said.

“Law follows theology. It’s not as if some canonists sat down and said, ‘Well, let’s make up a canon that’s going to exclude people from holy Communion.’ This goes back to St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: ‘Whoever eats unworthily of the body and drinks from the Lord’s cup makes himself guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.’” 

The bishop said that St. Paul’s warning goes beyond abortion, and that if he became aware of politicians promoting other intrinsic evils within his diocese, he would have a similar response. 

Paprocki added, for now, even if he is alone in applying canon 915 to politicians, or faces pushback for doing so, he’ll be undeterred.

“We shouldn’t let those concerns influence the position that we take if we believe in conscience that this is the right thing to do,” the bishop said.

“I look to my patron saints --Thomas More and John Fisher — they stood up to King Henry VIII when he declared himself to be the head of the Church of England. And they both wound up being beheaded, but they did not let that threat deter them from standing up for what is right.”

“And you look at the example of St. John Fisher. He was the only bishop in England who apparently stood up to Henry VIII. Everybody else kind of went along under peer pressure or public pressure. And so even if I am the only bishop that’s doing this, I have to do what I think is right and follow my conscience.” 

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