Conservative Catholic efforts to bar President Joe Biden from Communion because of his support for abortion rights were directly and indirectly stopped by the Vatican last fall with Pope Francis warning against the political weaponization of the sacrament of the Eucharist. But existing Catholic doctrine leaves the ultimate decision on access to Communion up to individual bishops and priests. The bishops supervising the president’s regular places of worship in Delaware and Washington, D.C., have his back on this issue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not so lucky.
San Francisco archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, a long-time hard-liner on this issue, has now publicly banned Pelosi from Communion, citing her most recent support for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would codify the abortion rights the U.S. Supreme Court may be on the brink of extinguishing. His edict has the tone of a stern schoolmaster chastising an incorrigibly disruptive child. Per the Catholic News Service:
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said he decided to make this declaration “after numerous attempts to speak with her to help her understand the grave evil she is perpetrating, the scandal she is causing and the danger to her own soul she is risking” as a Catholic who supports legalized abortion.
Indeed, Cordileone said Pelosi would not be readmitted to the central rite of Catholic worship until she had gone to confession and received absolution “for her cooperation in this evil.”
This is hardly the first time a bishop or an individual priest has taken this inherently political stand. Biden himself was denied Communion by a South Carolina priest while campaigning for president in that state in 2019. In 2004, John Kerry, the first Catholic since John F. Kennedy to win a presidential nomination, was banned from Communion in at least one diocese; his staff had to call ahead to ensure the regular Massgoer wouldn’t be embarrassed on any given Sunday by some conservative bishop or priest. And senior Democratic senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has gotten used to this problem, America Magazine reports:
For the last 17 years, Senator Durbin has been unable to receive Communion in Springfield, Ill., the diocese where he grew up. In April 2004 his pastor Monsignor Kevin Vann (now the bishop of Orange County, Calif.) said he would be “reticent” to give Mr. Durbin Communion on the basis of his pro-choice political voting record. At the time, then-bishop of Springfield, Ill., George J. Lucas, supported Father Vann’s action. Current Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki has maintained that position and banned other local pro-choice politicians from receiving Communion as well.
But given Pelosi’s exalted position and the timing — not long after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops backed down from excluding pro-choice politicians from the Eucharist and not long before the Supreme Court rules on abortion rights — Cordileone is throwing down the gauntlet not only to Catholics who support abortion rights but indirectly to the Vatican. Pelosi, after all, had a cordial private meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican last October, shortly before Francis met with Biden and reportedly told the president he was a “good Catholic” who ought to take Communion. Aside from quietly but emphatically undermining the conservative bishops’ plots against Biden and other pro-choice American politicians, Francis has made it clear he regards the Eucharist as “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” while noting he has never denied Communion to anyone.
It’s unclear whether the Vatican can or will do anything about the decision of an individual bishop to do as he wishes in individually “disciplining” Catholics within his jurisdiction. Pelosi herself, like Durbin and others, can still go to Mass and can seek Communion in Washington or in churches outside the prescribed territory. But if Francis and other Catholic leaders who are worried about the politicization of the church let this go without comment (and so far, most of the comments from American bishops have reflected enthusiastic support from his fellow hard-liners), the culture wars will divide a church that values unity above all.