In the past year, as it became clear that the Supreme Court was poised to strike down the right to an abortion, a group of conservative Catholic bishops sought to exclude pro-choice American politicians from the central sacrament of the Church, the Holy Eucharist (i.e., Communion). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the chief object lesson after efforts to deny the president of the United States access to the Sacrament failed. On May 20, the archbishop of Pelosi’s hometown of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, publicly banned her from receiving Communion in any of the churches he supervises. Subsequently, three other bishops — in Santa Rosa, California, Arlington, Virginia, and Tyler, Texas — joined the ban, in case Pelosi thought going to Mass outside San Francisco would produce a different result.
When all this was happening, the distinguished Catholic columnist Michael Sean Winters recommended an appeal to a higher authority:
Cordileone is a bomb thrower of an archbishop and he has thrown a bomb all right. But the real damage will not be done to the halls of government. The real damage will be done — is being done — to the Catholic Church. For that reason, I hope Pelosi will appeal his edict to the Holy See.
And that’s what she did, implicitly at least, by attending a papal Mass at the Vatican on Wednesday. The House Speaker was duly offered the Eucharist, as the Washington Post reports:
During the Mass at the Vatican on Wednesday, it wasn’t the 85-year-old Francis who personally handed Pelosi the holy wafer, as his active participation in Masses is increasingly constrained by a knee condition that often requires him to use a wheelchair. Before the Mass, Pelosi had a greeting with the pope where she received a blessing, according to an attendee.
She was reportedly in Rome on a family vacation.
Though the Vatican made no comment about Pelosi’s participation in the Mass, there’s no question this was a very direct repudiation of the conservative bishops. Pope Francis made it clear last October, after granting a private audience to President Biden, that he did not favor weaponizing the Eucharist in political battles, even over abortion, which the Church still condemns unconditionally. He told the president he was “a good Catholic” who ought to continue taking Communion. And Francis has continued to insist on multiple occasions that the Eucharist is an instrument for healing and unity, not a reward for good behavior. It seems the timing of Pelosi’s presence at the Vatican may not have been entirely coincidental, the Post notes:
Pelosi’s Communion can hardly be considered an oversight. It took place on the day that Francis issued an apostolic letter extolling the virtues of Mass, reminding his church of how such celebration belongs to “the totality of the faithful united in Christ.”
“The liturgy does not say ‘I’ but ‘we,’ ” Francis wrote in his letter, “and any limitation on the breadth of this ‘we’ is always demonic.”
Francis’s handling of this controversy is in keeping with the Vatican’s reaction to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which was far from triumphalist and in fact included pointed challenges to the conservative politicians celebrating the decision, as the Jesuit magazine America reported:
A truly pro-life celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade would lead to cooperative efforts to pass legislation protecting life, women’s rights and motherhood, said an editorial in Vatican News and L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.
Those efforts should include finding ways to protect maternal health and lower the maternal death rate, assist poor women, provide or expand paid family leave and control access to guns in the country, said the piece written by Andrea Tornielli, editorial director at the Vatican Dicastery for Communication.
So the intra-Catholic maneuvering over the intersection of politics and religion continues. It’s not a simple picture, but it’s increasingly clear the current pope will not countenance the use of sacraments to score political points.
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