Why Cordileone’s Pelosi response matters

Analysis

Last week, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco issued a public correction of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the issue of abortion. 

The archbishop’s pointed intervention, directed personally toward a high-ranking Catholic politician, could signal a new shift in the evolving relationship between the U.S. bishops and Catholic politicians on the issue of abortion, and point to a question that might define how the bishops relate to each other on the subject.

Cordileone responded Thursday to comments made by Pelosi earlier in the week in which she characterized pro-life voters as “willing to sell the whole democracy down the river on that one issue [of abortion].”

In a podcast with Hilary Clinton, Pelosi credited pro-life votes with electing former president Donald Trump in 2016, something she said “gives me great grief as a Catholic.”

Responding to Pelosi, Cordileone, who is the Speaker’s local ordinary, said that America “is soaked with the blood of the innocent [because of abortion], and it must stop.” He added that “No Catholic in good conscience can favor abortion.” 

The archbishop said Pelosi “speaks in direct contradiction to a fundamental human right that Catholic teaching has consistently championed for 2,000 years.”

Clarifying Church teaching, and offering a pointed rebuke to Pelosi’s claim to speak “as a Catholic” while defending abortion, Cordileone’s direct response to Pelosi could be interpreted as a formal and public admonition to Pelosi on a matter of essential Church teaching, a move that would precede prohibiting the lawmaker from receiving Holy Communion.

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The Church teaches that the act of abortion is the voluntary taking of an innocent human life, the grave immorality of which is a teaching which Catholics are required to “believe with divine and Catholic faith,” the highest level of teaching authority.

Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law provides that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” According to a 2004 memo issued by the Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Catholic politicians - like Pelosi - who “consistently campaign and vote for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” are engaged in “manifest” and “formal cooperation” in grave sin.

But, the CDF recommended that before publicly prohibiting a Catholic politician from receiving Communion, their “pastor should meet with [them], instructing [them] about the Church’s teaching, informing [them] that [they] are not to present [themselves] for Holy Communion until [they] bring to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning [them] that [they] will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”

Cordileone’s public corrective of the Speaker could be interpreted as an attempt to instruct her in the Church’s teaching ahead of such a warning, in line with the CDF’s memo.

If Cordileone does indeed intend to press ahead and deny Pelosi Communion in her home, the Archdiocese of San Francisco, his decision would have implications for relations among U.S. bishops, already facing division in their approach to the Biden administration.

Last week, on the day of Biden’s inauguration, USCCB president Jose Gomez released a letter reiterating the Church’s “preeminent priority” of opposing and ending legal abortion.  

While a majority of bishops who responded to Gomez’s statement offered their support for his approach, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago called the release ill-considered and without precedent. It has been widely reported that Cupich sought Roman intervention to stop the release of Gomez’s statement, and tried to garner support for an alternative text more conciliatory to the incoming administration.

Further disputes seem inevitable between the majority of U.S. bishops, committed to prioritizing their opposition to abortion even as they work with the administration on other issues, and a minority who would seem to prefer to see division over abortion downplayed, in favor of a more cooperative tone on areas of mutual agreement with the administration. 

For better or worse, any action on Pelosi would likely spur a flare-up of that disagreement.

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Although Cordileone is Pelosi’s bishop, she spends much of her time in Washington, D.C. While a decision to deny Communion to Pelosi in California would be national news, Church observers would likely be especially curious whether Washington’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory would accept and enforce the decision of her bishop when she is in Washington.

Gregory has already said that, whatever pro-abortion policies Biden will advance from the Oval Office, he will not be denying the president Communion, preferring to dialogue with the incoming president on matters of agreement.

While Gregory is free to make that determination regarding a president who is formally resident in his own archdiocese and under his jurisdiction, deciding whether to instruct his clergy to honor, or disregard, the decisions of Pelosi’s own home bishop is a decision that could impact not only Pelosi’s soul, but also the communion of the U.S. bishops.