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The case against Cordileone?

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. Credit: Shawn Calhoun, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone generated a media frenzy on Friday, when he published a notification which informed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she was prohibited from receiving Holy Communion in her home diocese of San Francisco.

Cordileone’s announcement was a response to Pelosi’s decades-long support for legal access to abortion, including her recent efforts to enshrine the full latitude of Roe v. Wade into federal law. The archbishop said it came after repeated efforts to meet with the speaker privately, to discuss her position and status relative to the Church’s teaching on the grave immorality of the taking of innocent human life through abortion.

Several U.S. bishops lined up to support the archbishop, calling his action necessary, pastoral, and aimed at addressing both Pelosi’s spiritual welfare and scandal among the Catholic faithful. Many of them also praised Cordileone’s “courage” in taking public action to prohibit Pelosi from receiving the sacrament.

The announcement has also triggered a widespread backlash in some corners of both the Catholic and political media spheres, with commentators, academics, and Whoopi Goldberg denouncing the archbishop’s action, with a number of different arguments.

While the archbishop has said he will not engage in ongoing interviews about the announcement, many of the arguments now being deployed against the archbishop were raised as U.S. bishops debated the subject, and Cordileone seemed to offer anticipatory responses to them in his correspondence with Pelosi and his diocese, and in a long interview he offered on Friday.

Of course, debate is likely to continue. But it’s worth noting the state of the debate on some of the objections raised against Cordileone’s decision.

Weaponizing the sacrament

Among the arguments against Archbishop Cordelione’s prohibition on Speaker Pelosi is that the archbishop is “weaponizing” the Eucharist, turning the sacrament into a kind of tool of discipline to be wielded against perceived malefactors.

Last year, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego claimed that “the Eucharist is being weaponized and deployed as a tool in political warfare,” by bishops who suggested barring promient Catholic politicians from communion over their abortion advocacy.

While acknowledging the teaching of the Church on the grave immorality of abortion itself, and of laws protecting it, and the importance of ending both, McElroy concluded that “the Eucharist must never be instrumentalized for a political end, no matter how important.”

Cordileone, for his part, would seem to reject the premise of the argument: that barring a particular Catholic form communion is intended to effect a political end.

In his letter to Pelosi, and in his public notification released on Friday, the archbishop was clear his end was “purely pastoral” and directed towards Pelosi herself and to the local Catholic community.

The archbishop’s primary aim, he said, is for Pelosi to return to communion with the Church, both at the teaching and sacramental level, and clarify the confusion her position has caused within the Catholic community, not coerce her into any political action to end or limit abortion.

Of course, as McElroy noted last year, abortion is often — almost universally — presented as a partisan political issue in American media. The bishop predicted that barring politicians from the Eucharist would mean “fully half the Catholics in the United States will see this action as partisan in nature, and it will bring the terrible partisan divisions that have plagued our nation into the very act of worship that is intended by God to cause and signify our oneness.”

In an interview released on Friday, Cordileone appeared to acknowledge that possible perception directly, saying that “people are getting confused, people are getting upset” about the public contradiction between Pelosi’s public Catholic practice and her political support for abortion.

“It’s… fueling these flames of polarization and dissension,” Cordileone said as he conceded that “some people might accuse me of doing that as well.”

“But I just know in my conscience, I have to do something to teach clearly about this evil and that there are solutions to this dilemma that we’re in.”

He said that while he “would imagine some people are going to see this as being very heavy-handed,”  and he would “really would prefer not to do this,” he could not in conscience allow the situation to continue and cause scandal, citing his pastoral imperative to act in defense of Pelosi’s own spiritual welfare, and of those affected by her example.

While it may not prove especially persuasive, it is worth noting that as a technical matter, Cordileone did not, legally speaking, act to “punish” Pelosi.

Cordileone explained last week that he believes he had “no choice” but to follow clear requirements in the Church’s teaching and law, and that failure to do so would be a dereliction of his pastoral duty to Pelosi herself.

The archbishop’s prohibition was made in line with canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law which holds that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” - but does not identify that decision as a punishment, formally speaking.

While punishments for canonical crimes exist in canon law, the Church says the use of c. 915 is different: A medicinal measure with two purposes: the first of which is for the good of the individual.

The Church formally teaches that abortion is an evil “gravely contrary to the moral law,” and that any law “which would admit in principle the liceity of abortion…is in itself immoral.”

Reception of communion after the free commission of a grave sin is, according to the Catechism, also a grave sin, which does serious spiritual harm to the individual.

“Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession,” the Catechism says.

To date, the “weaponization” argument has been the most frequent point of contention among U.S. bishops over the question of “Eucharistic coherence.”

It featured prominently in the 2021 debates over a USCCB statement on the Eucharist, and iterations of it have featured in remarks from a number of bishops.

It is also likely to feature in any eventual response from Cardinal Wilton Gregory on specific questions about Pelosi — Gregory, who has said that the prospect of denying the Eucharist is like keeping “a gun on the table,” can probably be expected to raise that point again when he’s asked about the implications of Cordileone’s denial for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Incoherent coherence

The bishops of the United States last year engaged in a lengthy, often fractious debate about the inclusion of language in a document on the Eucharist to deal with the subject of sacramental “coherence,” which became a kind of euphemism for discussing prominent Catholics like Pelosi who present themselves as public Catholics, and receive the Eucharist, despite public inconsistency with the Church on matters of core moral teaching.

In addition to the spiritual harm to the person themselves, the provisions of canon 915 specifically recognize the public nature of an individual’s commission of grave sin as necessary for the canon’s application. Public scandal, bishops argued last year, is a real harm to the Christian community requiring the response of ecclesiastical authority to prevent others being led into error or into questioning the sincerity of the Church’s position on a serious moral issue.

While bishops almost never raise this kind of argument, commentators have suggested in recent days that Cordileone’s action to prohibit Pelosi from receiving communion is an incoherent expression of this kind of sacramental coherence, since it singles out one politician for her views on one subject, and does not address other prominent Catholics who appear to fall afoul of Church teaching on other moral issues.

In his letter last year, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, said that any conversation about Catholic politicians and reception of communion “would best be framed in the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful, rather than only one category of Catholics reflecting their obligation to conform their lives to the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ as they prepare to receive the sacrament.”

“It would be misleading,” Ladaria said, “to give the impression that abortion and euthanasia constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability on the part of Catholics.”

Some of those arguing against Cordileone’s response to Pelosi say it represents a exactly that kind of “misleading” cherrypicking of moral issues.

Why, they have asked, isn’t similar action taken against politicians who support  the unjust application of the death penalty, or even policies on the treatment of migrants which are deemed immoral by the Church?

At the cooperative level, the U.S. bishops have, for years, made statements through the USCCB and via state Catholic conferences denouncing exactly these policies. But to date no high-profile Catholic has been singled out publicly by his local bishop over them, or faced the prospect of sacramental discipline.

There do not, of course, appear to be any such Catholic politicians in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, so it would seem hard to argue credibly that Cordileone is himself being selective in his application of the Church’s moral teaching. But that does not mean there are no legitimate questions to be asked.

Many of those calling out the supposed inconsistency of Cordileone’s action note that during the previous presidential administration former Attorney General William Barr was a prominent Catholic in a senior government role who took determinative action to reinstate the practice of the federal death penalty.

During Barr’s tenure as AG, the USCCB’s committees on pro-life activities and domestic justice and human development made repeated statements condemning the administration’s resumption of federal executions, calling them “completely unnecessary and unacceptable.”

Addressing President Donald Trump and Barr by name, the bishops pleaded: “Enough. Stop these executions.”

As a decades-long resident in the DC area, Barr’s local bishop would presumably be either Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington or Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, depending on his place of residence.

It is possible, but not certain, that one of those bishops was engaged in the kind of private dialogue which Cordileone said he sought to have with Pelosi over a period of years. It is possible Barr left office before that attempted dialogue concluded. It is equally possible that none of that happened.

While Cordileone’s action against Pelosi does not appear immediately selective on his part, it does seem to raise legitimate questions about the willingness of other bishops to act in a similar manner on different grave moral issues to avoid the kind of “misleading” impression flagged by Ladaria.

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Playing politics

Some of those arguing against Cordileone’s announcement on Friday have accused the archbishop of involving the Church in politics, suggesting that, because Pelosi’s support for abortion is directed through her official role as a member of Congress and Speaker of the House, the archbishop’s decision to declare her prohibited from receiving communion is, essentially, a political act.

Cordileone, for his part, stressed on Friday that his decision “is purely pastoral, not political,” and motivated by concern for Pelosi, whom he called “our sister in Christ,” and for the wider Catholic community in his archdiocese.

On the specific subject of denying communion to Catholic politicians who promote abortion, Pope Francis said last year that there are “no middle terms” when dealing with the subject: “It’s a homicide,” the pope said. “Whomever does an abortion, kills.”

Referring to Catholic politicians working to entrench legal protections for abortion, Francis said that “Those people who are not in the community cannot take communion, because they are out of the community.”

“It is not a punishment: Communion is linked to the community,” said the pope.

“The problem is pastoral, how do we, as bishops, manage this principle,” Francis said. “If we look at the history of the Church, we will see that every time the bishops acted not as pastors in a problem, they became politicians.”

“And what should the pastor do?” asked the pope. “He shouldn’t go around condemning. And he must also be a pastor with those who are excommunicated, and be so with God’s style, which is closeness, compassion and tenderness.”

Cordileone has said he’s made that kind of pastoral closeness a special concern, and that “Speaker Pelosi has been uppermost in my prayer intentions ever since I became the Archbishop of San Francisco.”

He also noted that he has asked Catholics to join him in a campaign of prayer and fasting for the speaker, and praised her for her “advocacy for the care of the poor and vulnerable” which he said “elicits my admiration.”

Regarding the pope’s call for closeness, the archbishop went on to say that he hoped his calls for prayer for Pelosi would be received by her as “a sign of the honest love and care that many thousands of people have for her.”

Of course, the archbishop’s rationale for acting as he has will not convince those who would argue that any formal action involving a Catholic politician and the reception of communion is ipso facto political.

But it would seem he could reasonably respond that if any such action can be taken in line with the statements of Pope Francis and the processes outlined by the Vatican, he has tried to do so.

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