On Wednesday, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attended Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. She greeted Pope Francis before the Mass and later received Holy Communion, despite being prohibited from doing so over her pro-abortion beliefs by her home archbishop.
The event generated an understandable flurry of Catholic media attention. Her decision to receive Communion (not distributed by the pope) has been held up in some corners as an act of defiance by the Speaker against her bishop, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, and the fact that she wasn't denied at the Communion plate as tacit Vatican, even papal, support for her.
But how should Catholics interpret Pelosi’s Roman holiday?
Last month, Archbishop Cordileone announced that Pelosi would not be admitted to Holy Communion in her home archdiocese, invoking 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.”
Citing the Speaker’s decades of support for legal abortion, in May, 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,” and outlined his own years of pastoral attempts to dialogue with her on the subject.
After the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade last week, Pelosi has been, if anything, even more strident in her support for legal abortion, and continued to attend Mass at her usual parish in Georgetown, D.C.
With regards to Pelosi’s attendance at St. Peter’s on Wednesday, it’s clear she wasn’t there as an anonymous member of the assembly — she met briefly with the pope before Mass began, and she was seated in the VIP diplomatic section.
While it's unclear if the individual priest who distributed Communion to her knew who she was, in a sense it’s irrelevant — the Vatican is certainly aware of her situation and could have taken steps accordingly, if it wanted to.
But jumping to the conclusion that by allowing Pelosi to present herself for Communion is some kind of pointed rebuke to Cordileone doesn’t necessarily follow.
It’s not unreasonable to observe that denying Pelosi Communion on Wednesday would hardly be a neutral act — while many of Cordileone’s brother bishops lined up to support the archbishop’s action, and promised to honor his decision, as Pelosi’s proper pastor in their own dioceses, others disagreed, including Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, echoing a debate among the bishops last year about who, if anyone ever, should be denied Communion.
It’s also worth noting that, while he did so invoking and applying canon law, Cordileone didn’t impose a canonical punishment on Pelosi, or declare her to be excommunicated; he issued a public account of a pastoral judgment he had made.
While other bishops would be bound by law to honor a formal canonical penalty imposed on Pelosi, choosing to honor Cordileone’s pastoral judgment is, essentially, a matter of episcopal collegiality.
Ordering St. Peter’s Eucharistic ministers to recognize and deny Pelosi Communion would have been as pointed an intervention in a live debate among the U.S. bishops as on the Speaker’s individual circumstances. And this is to say nothing of the diplomatic ramifications.
Many Catholic state figures have presented themselves for Communion at the Vatican over the years, despite being generally known to be at odds with the Church’s moral teachings, and the default position has been not to deny them, even when it creates controversy: In 2011, former Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe famously received Communion at St. Peter’s during the Mass of beatification for St. John Paul II, and few took this to be an implied endorsement of his actions in government by the pope.
Indeed, on abortion the pope has been every bit as outspoken as Cordileone, calling it “daily homicide” and comparing the practice to Nazi eugenics while repeatedly likening abortion doctors to “hitmen.”
Even on the subject of Communion and pro-abortion politicians, it was Francis who said last year that “those who are not in the community, cannot receive Communion,” while stressing his desire to see bishops demonstrate the kind of committed pastoral concern for them which Cordileone outlined in his announcement regarding Pelosi.
Even if he was speaking in the abstract and not of particular cases, Francis actually went further than Cordileone, describing pro-abortion politicians as excommunicated: “Out of the community: excommunicated. It’s a harsh word, but they don’t belong in the community, because they were not baptized, or because they are estranged from it.”
While Francis noted that he’d never himself been confronted with a pro-abortion politician in the Communion line, he also stopped distributing Communion himself as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, avoiding just such potential encounters.
It is, perhaps, fair to ask if the pope should be more publicly encouraging of bishops like Cordileone who take him at his word, but declining to make the second most visible American politician’s relationship with the Church a Vatican problem isn’t the same thing as lining up against the archbishop.
It’s also worth noting that, among much discussion about abortion, the pope, the U.S. bishops, and the politicization of Communion, the person most directly affected by the situation is Pelosi herself.
Leaving aside the public scandal her political support for abortion occasions, both for Catholics and non-Catholics, both Francis and Cordileone would seem to agree that her political actions carry heavy consequences for her soul.
Her spiritual welfare is probably a far more pressing concern for both Francis and her local archbishop than sending coded messages through the Communion line.