After Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone announced on Friday that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi can not receive Holy Communion in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Catholics and non-Catholics have had a lot of questions about what exactly that means, and what could happen now.
The Pillar knows what’s up:
What exactly did Archbishop Cordileone announce last week?
On May 20, Cordileone, the archbishop of San Francisco, announced that U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would not be admitted to Holy Communion in the San Francisco archdiocese.
The archbishop invoked canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, which says that Catholics “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
Cordileone wrote that a “Catholic legislator who supports procured abortion, after knowing the teaching of the Church, commits a manifestly grave sin which is a cause of most serious scandal to others.”
In a May 19 text, the archbishop said that Pelosi had refused to meet or speak with him after she “vowed,” in September 2021, “to codify the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in federal law.”
The same text said that Cordileone had instructed Pelosi last month to “publicly repudiate your advocacy for abortion ‘rights’ or else refrain from referring to your Catholic faith in public and receiving Holy Communion.”
Because she did not do either of those things, the archbishop announced last week that Pelosi is “not to be admitted to Holy Communion, until such time as you publicly repudiate your advocacy for the legitimacy of abortion and confess and receive absolution of this grave sin in the sacrament of Penance.”
The instruction had two sets of intended recipients. First, Pelosi herself. Second, the priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist in the San Francisco archdiocese, who would be responsible not to administer the Eucharist to Pelosi if she attempted to receive it.
So the archbishop excommunicated Speaker Pelosi?
Nope. Excommunication is a formal and defined penalty in the Church, which does prohibit a Catholic from receiving Holy Communion, but has other implications too: it prohibits a person from exercising certain offices or responsibilities in the Church, for example.
While an excommunication is the consequence of committing a canonical crime, called a delict, Cordileone’s decision is the result of a public pattern of behavior he called sinful, namely advocacy for the legal protection or federal funding of abortion.
Abortion is a canonical crime, and the penalty for it is an excommunication. But the canonical crime of abortion pertains to people involved in procuring or conducting a particular, specific abortion, and not with — as a lawmaker would do — setting the conditions by which that abortion would happen.
There are some canon lawyers who argue that a pro-choice Catholic politician might be excommunicated because of the canonical crime of heresy — if the politician consistently denies the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life. But that idea has not been actually tried, and was not the approach Cordileone took last week.
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It sounds like that “manifest grave sin” thing could apply to other political advocacy too, right?
Sure. A Catholic politician working for for legal protection of euthanasia, for example, or torture, or unjust executions, or the redefinition of marriage, could be found by his bishop to be “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin,” and be prohibited from Holy Communion.
Of course, the specifics of each situation need to be meted out with a careful study of the relevant doctrinal issues and the specific proposals in play, but the political applications of canon 915 are not limited to abortion.
And there are non-political situations to which the canon is also ordinarily thought to apply: public cohabitation, for example, or situations of ongoing injustice: human trafficking, membership in an organized crime association, slave ownership, to which the canon would also seem to apply.
Does Cordileone’s decision apply in other dioceses?
From a strictly legal perspective, no — Cordileone’s decision is limited to the archdiocese over which he exercises jurisdiction, in San Francisco.
But the bishop in a neighboring diocese, Santa Rosa, where Pelosi has a vacation home, has said he will uphold Cordileone’s decision in his diocese. And there is a thought among some canon lawyers and theologians that respecting Cordileone’s decision is an element of episcopal communion — the bond of unity between bishops — because of his unique role as the bishop in Pelosi’s home diocese.
But there are also observers who argue that each diocesan bishop must make his own judgment about “manifest perseverance in obstinate grave sin.”
A spokesperson for Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, DC - where Pelosi also has a home - said Monday that the cardinal “has not instructed the priests of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington to refuse Communion to anyone.”
“Cardinal Gregory's position has not changed from what he has said in the past,” the spokesperson added — namely that the cardinal did not intend to prohibit Catholic politicians from receiving Holy Communion because of their political positions.
Gregory’s position would seem to be a sea change from that of his predecessor, in DC, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who said in 2009 that the archdiocese would generally follow the decisions of politicians’ local bishops on matters Eucharistic.
Of course, Wuerl’s statement came under a different circumstances: A politician, Kathleen Sebelius, was asked by her bishop not to receive the Eucharist, but the bishop did not invoke the formal canon law prohibition Cordileone issued last week.
What happens if San Francisco priests don’t listen?
Cordileone’s decision was an instruction to San Francisco clerics that in his judgment, Pelosi meets the requirements of canon 915, and should not be admitted to Holy Communion. But the archbishop isn’t the one holding a ciborium in parishes across the archdiocese, so it’s worth asking if his priests, and the religious priests who serve in the diocese, will actually follow his direction.
While some will agree with the archbishop’s decision, others won’t. Recent changes to canon law include a latae sententiae penalty - a suspension for a cleric - for “a person who deliberately administers a sacrament to those who are prohibited from receiving” - which would seem to apply to someone in San Francisco who administered the Eucharist to Pelosi.
If a priest in a religious order defied his instruction, the archbishop could even additionally prohibit him from residence in the archdiocese.
Whether Cordileone chooses to use that tool is a matter of speculation, but it does seem his best option for the enforcement of the decision.
To address an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist — a non-cleric who helps dispense Communion — Cordileone could declare an “interdict,” which would prohibit the person from themselves receiving Holy Communion without repenting.
What happens next?
Cordileone said last week that he took a drastic measure for the sake of Pelosi’s conversion — and the archbishop has urged Catholics to pray the decision will have its intended effect.
Beyond that, it does not seem that the San Fran ban will apply in Washington, which could lead to some tension between bishops with differing views on the subject.
And at the same time, after more than 10 U.S. bishops have issued statements of support for Cordileone, it is possible that some might follow suit, applying canon 915 to political leaders in their own dioceses, over abortion or over other moral issues.
Ed. note: This explainer was updated with additional detail after publication.