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Pelosi and the archbishop(s): what next?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 23, 2022

“The rhetorical battle among the American Catholic bishops is heating up,” I wrote last September, adding:

Sooner or later, some bold bishop is actually going to do something about Catholic politicians who promote unrestricted abortion.

On Friday, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco did something, with a calm but firm announcement that despite “sincere and diligent efforts at dialogue and persuasion,” the Speaker of the House, who is a member of his archdiocesan flock, has refused to alter her public stand in favor of unrestricted legal abortion, and that therefore “I have determined that the point has come in which I must make a public declaration that she is not to be admitted to Holy Communion unless and until she publicly repudiate her support for abortion ‘rights’ and confess and receive absolution for her cooperation in this evil in the sacrament of Penance.”

No one who actually reads the archbishop’s statement (as opposed to the caricatured media accounts) could fail to recognize his obvious pastoral concern for her spiritual welfare, his willingness to give her every benefit of doubt, his reluctance to take this disciplinary action. He explains that he had admonished the Speaker repeatedly, and sought—unsuccessfully—to meet with her privately before finally issuing the disciplinary decision. Yet her “position on abortion has become only more extreme over the years, especially in the last few months.” As he explained in an interview with America magazine:

But more recently, her advocacy for codifying the Roe decision into federal law—it’s becoming more and more extreme and more and more aggressive. And I’ve been trying to speak with her about this. I’ve done a lot of prayer and fasting. So I’ve been struggling with this for a long time.

No surprise

Nor could any reasonable observer say that the archbishop’s action was precipitous. A bit more than a year ago, he released a pastoral letter on “the human dignity of the unborn, Holy Communion, and Catholics in public life.” At the time I wrote that the pastoral letter might be Pelosi’s last warning, and explained:

Archbishop Cordileone has repeated and underlined the arguments for Eucharistic coherence. More important, he has made public the case for taking that crucial next step. So now, while we hope and pray that Speaker Pelosi and her colleagues will recognize the force of the arguments, we are left to wonder if and when the archbishop will take that next step.

In September, Archbishop Cordileone weighed in again with an op-ed in the Washington Post on the same topic, and again I was certainly not alone when I saw the handwriting on the wall:

But the op-ed also presents a challenge to Archbishop Cordileone himself. Because this essay contains an implicit threat—particularly to Speaker Pelosi, who resides in Cordileone’s archdiocese—and a threat that is made repeatedly but never carried out loses all its force.

Better late than never

So now Archbishop Cordileone has done what he said he might be forced to do; he has taken the action that, as he explained, he saw being forced upon him. It would have been better, frankly—for Pelosi, and for Cordileone, and for America, and for the Church—if some other bishop had shown the same sort of fortitude twenty or thirty or forty years ago, before Americans became accustomed to the scandalous advocacy of abortion by Catholic politicians. If ordinary Catholics had been persuaded that they could not flout the moral law without facing severe consequences—both now and in the next life—might legal abortion have been rejected before it gained widespread public acceptance? Might the Roe decision have been overturned a generation ago, and millions of lives saved? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that today, with abortion an accepted part of American culture, Archbishop Cordileone’s action required exceptional courage. When he issued his statement he was fully aware of the reaction that he would face. He told America magazine:

And I know I’m going to be judged harshly. I know I’m going to be accused of being punitive, of being political. That’s all false, but my conscience won’t allow me to refrain from doing this. I cannot [have] peace of conscience without doing so.

His conscience will be at peace, but the archbishop will live in the eye of a public storm for the foreseeable future. Rabid advocates of abortion will insult and threaten and seek to intimidate him. Editorial writers will denounce him. The San Francisco Examiner, in a muddle-headed editorial, has accused him of “open defiance of Pope Francis” (an odd charge, since the archbishop’s statement opens with a lengthy citation of the Pope’s teaching) and called for his removal from office.

The archbishop will be buoyed up, however, his peace of conscience ensured, by the prayerful thanks of countless thousands of devout lay Catholics. The question now is whether Archbishop Cordileone will receive the support he deserves from his fellow American bishops, and from Rome.

Does the ban travel with the Speaker?

A handful of American bishops have already made public statements of their support for Archbishop Cordileone’s action, and others no doubt will follow. Archbishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa, California, was quick to announce that Speaker Pelosi would also be barred from Communion in his diocese, where she owns a vacation home. But all eyes will now shift toward Washington, DC, where Pelosi spends most of her time (and does most of her abortion advocacy), and where Cardinal Wilton Gregory has indicated that he would not withhold Communion from pro-abortion politicians. Archbishop Cordileone’s disciplinary action forces Cardinal Gregory to decide whether or not he will uphold his brother bishop’s ban.

A critical question here—one on which canon lawyers disagree—is whether the ban travels with the Speaker. Archbishop Cordileone is her pastor, and he has determined that she is not qualified to receive the Eucharist. But does that determination apply only within the geographical limits of his own archdiocese? When she is in Washington, can Cardinal Gregory (who is not her pastor) make a different judgment?

From Speaker Pelosi’s perspective the problem seems simpler—at least at first glance. John Allen of Crux reasons:

Unless a large contingent of other bishops impose similar bans in their dioceses, almost everywhere Pelosi may go, good advance work probably will be able to identify a sympathetic pastor willing to administer communion should she want to attend Mass.

The same logic applies

But wait. If he gives Communion to Pelosi in violation of the ban, that “sympathetic pastor” could face severe sanctions himself. A new provision (1379§4) of the Church’s canon law, signed into force by Pope Francis just last year, stipulates:

A person who deliberately administers a sacrament to those who are prohibited from receiving it is to be punished with suspension.

So again the issue hinges on the question of whether the ban imposed by Archbishop Cordileone is in force in other dioceses. The Vatican, which handles canonical debates at a leisurely pace, is not very likely to resolve that question any time soon. And Pope Francis has avoided taking a clear stand on the issue, one way or another. While it is true that the Pope has said he never denied the Eucharist to anyone, it is also true that he said that Catholics who support abortion are “outside the community” and therefore should not receive Communion.

Yet beyond the questions of canonical jurisdiction and Vatican authority, there is a question of conscience, which Archbishop Cordileone addressed in that pastoral letter last May. He explained that he could not, in conscience, remain silent while prominent Catholics joined in public campaigns for abortion. “I tremble,” he wrote, “that if I do not forthrightly challenge Catholics under my pastoral care who advocate for abortion, both they and I have to answer to God for innocent blood.” The same logic that prompted Archbishop Cordileone to act—the same demand of conscience—should prompt every other American prelate to support him.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: rfr46 - May. 26, 2022 2:53 AM ET USA

    Our prayers and actions are better directed to the women and unborn children affected by Mrs. Pelosi's horrific actions. She can take the consequences of her own deliberate choices.

  • Posted by: grateful1 - May. 24, 2022 6:50 PM ET USA

    I second poster patmitchell1846's post. Thanks so much, Phil.

  • Posted by: patmitchell1846 - May. 24, 2022 1:29 PM ET USA

    The Holy Eucharist is a sacrament. It is not a palliative. As the Body and Blood of Christ this sacrament is given the reverence of Latria, thus treated with the highest honor and respect owed to God. Archbishop Cordileone has tried to impress that upon Speaker Pelosi. Sadly, in her pride, the feckless Speaker has rejected the counsel she so desperately needs. The Archdiocese of San Francisco is blessed with an Archbishop of outstanding intelligence, integrity and courage. Thanks be to God!

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - May. 24, 2022 12:12 AM ET USA

    In this case, I'll agree with Pope Francis: canon lawyers are pharisees. It's obvious the ban isn't bound by geography. Pelosi's views are not only not bound by geography, but she is also most effective outside her immediate "home". And that's what the Abp. is talking about: her views and stubbornness to be open to discussion and, hopefully, eventual repentance.