On May 20, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco sent a letter to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a resident of the city, informing her that “you are not to present yourself for Holy Communion and, should you do so, you are 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 letter was the result of many years of unsuccessful pastoral effort by Archbishop Cordileone to persuade Speaker Pelosi of the error and immorality of her support for abortion. It was also the direct result of her refusal of various requests to discuss one-on-one her more recent push to codify the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in federal law as well as her failure to respond to his April 7, 2022 letter warning her that unless she publicly repudiated her advocacy for abortion, or refrained from referring to her Catholic faith in public and receiving Holy Communion, he would have to issue such a decree, consistent with Church law.
Those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin,” Canon 915 specifies, “are not to be admitted to Holy Communion,” and Speaker Pelosi’s persistent public support for the intentional killing of unborn human beings, despite having been privately corrected by her archbishop, certainly meets the canonical description.
Archbishop Cordileone — who says he finds “no pleasure whatever in fulfilling [his] pastoral duty here” — is simply doing his job, for the sake of Speaker Pelosi’s soul and to remedy the scandal and confusion her actions are causing with respect to the evil of abortion and to the worthy reception of Holy Communion.
Despite the lucidity of Canon 915, and a 2004 Letter to U.S. bishops by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) applying it to the situation of abortion and euthanasia, most U.S. bishops have been hesitant to apply the canon. They have preferred, rather, to emphasize Canon 916, which says that a person conscious of grave sin is not to receive Communion without previous sacramental confession. In their November 2021 document, The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, for example, the U.S. bishops reiterated, “If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or … repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, … he or she should refrain” from receiving Holy Communion (48).
But what happens when someone — despite the precision of the Church’s teaching on abortion and the norm that those who consciously and stubbornly reject Church teaching on abortion should refrain from receiving Holy Communion — comes to receive any way? What occurs when a bishop meets with a member of his flock to speak about the incongruity of the person’s public actions and instructs the person to refrain, but the person defies the instruction?
The U.S. bishops, in their November pastoral, declare that it “is the special responsibility of the diocesan bishop to work to remedy situations that involve public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law,” which is what Archbishop Cordileone sought to do with Speaker Pelosi, unfortunately to no avail. The U.S. bishops did not unambiguously state, consistent with Canon 915 and the 2004 Ratzinger Letter, that the bishop must refuse, but they did say that the diocesan bishop in question has a responsibility to “guard the integrity of the sacrament, the visible communion of the Church, and the salvation of souls” (49).
The integrity of the Eucharist is at stake when those who scandalously and intransigently persist in public grave sin, like support for abortion, continue to receive sacrilegiously. The visible communion of the Church, moreover, is fractured when those who consciously separate themselves from what St. Justin Martyr in the second century described as doctrinal, sacramental, moral communion nevertheless pretend that they’re in communion. And the salvation of souls is at stake when people live and die in a situation of unabsolved grave sin, rejecting communion with the truth of the faith about abortion and with the love of our littlest neighbors made in Christ’s image. Those who consume the Eucharist in a state of sin, St. Paul affirms, “have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord,” (1 Cor 11:27) and, as St. Thomas Aquinas warns in the Lauda Sion, “Bad and good the feast are sharing, of what divers dooms preparing: endless death or endless life.” That is what is on the line.
There are many bishops and faithful who hesitate, for different reasons, from publicly supporting Archbishop Cordileone’s decision. The larger issue, they say, is getting people back to Mass and into Communion, and it’s counterproductive to focus on refusing Holy Communion to those who are still attending. They worry that in remedying the scandal caused by a pro-abortion politician, the Church might be causing a greater scandal by making it seem the Church is letting the Eucharist be manipulated toward partisan political ends, or by discouraging those who disagree with Church teachings from thinking they’re still valued members of the family. Some note, moreover, that because some parishes are effectively pro-abortion, and those in Speaker Pelosi’s situation will always somewhere be given Holy Communion, such a decree, rather than strengthening visible communion, might undermine it.
But even if people are uncomfortable with and distinguish themselves from Archbishop Cordileone’s straightforward application of canon law and its potential consequences, the unambiguous message of the Church — prelates and faithful — should be a resounding, “Speaker Pelosi should absolutely not be receiving Communion.” The U.S. bishops’ document, which passed 222-8 last November, and Canon 916, make that quite clear.
When a bishop, or a prominent Catholic voice, distances himself from Archbishop Cordileone’s action, while not simultaneously emphasizing, “but we all agree that she should not be receiving Holy Communion,” such an action cannot but suggest by omission — scandalously — that Speaker Pelosi, despite her pertinacious abortion advocacy, is fine receiving Holy Communion.
Some prelates have said that they would never refuse anyone Holy Communion, including those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin. Such a declaration suggests they wouldn’t refuse a busy abortionist who has just finished a full Saturday, a Satan-worshipper wanting to steal communion for a sacrilegious ritual, a mobster or school serial killer trying to receive with blood dripping from his hands, a Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard wearing his hood, a human trafficker gripping his teen-age victim, an avowed militant atheist, or a non-Christian with no idea what — or better Who — the Eucharist is.
Never to refuse anyone Holy Communion is the equivalent of the Blessed Mother’s never refusing to give the Baby Jesus to anyone, including Herod’s henchmen. It is the opposite spirituality of St. Tarcisius, who gave his life to protect the Blessed Sacrament from teen gang members wanting to profane it. Such dereliction is not a badge of honor, but a cowardly failure of Eucharistic stewardship and of love for Jesus in His extreme Eucharistic vulnerability.
Other critics argue that abortion is not the only grave issue and Speaker Pelosi is not the only scandalous figure violating Canon 915. Both true. But such whataboutism proves rather than undermines the importance of Archbishop Cordileone’s action: the path to remedy other such scandals, after all, has to start somewhere.
Others who have criticized Archbishop Cordileone’s action have quoted Pope Francis’ words that the Eucharist is not a “prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (Joy of the Gospel, 47). The U.S. bishops point out in their recent document, however, that the “weak” refer to those with venial sins, not mortal (45). Pope Francis, moreover, himself has regularly distinguished “sinners” from the “corrupt.” Sinners, he says, are those who recognize they’ve erred and humbly approach God’s mercy. The corrupt, on the other hand, are “solidified in sin,” “varnished putrefaction” refusing to acknowledge they’ve sinned. Those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin are, by Pope Francis’ terminology, “corrupt,” not weak. They are not beyond God’s mercy, but they first have to recognize that and why they need it.
That’s what Archbishop Cordileone is trying to do with Speaker Pelosi. And in his care for the integrity of the sacrament, the communion of the Church, and Speaker Pelosi’s salvation, he deserves the Church’s prayers and full support.
Father Roger Landry is Interim Executive Editor. firstname.lastname@example.org.