Last year, as Catholic bishops discussed how to deal with pro-abortion politicians, Pope Francis said they should be pastoral and work for a change of heart, but added that these people “cannot take communion because they are outside the community.” ”.
I’m not sure he wanted the big names excluded. But last Friday, he got one. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco announced that he was barring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving communion in his diocese. “A Catholic lawmaker who supports abortion, after knowing the teaching of the Church, commits a serious sin,” she explained.
Pelosi has spent the past few weeks vigorously advocating national legalization of abortion in Congress. Historically, she has also tried to force her policy “in line with the Catholic faith” and has even tried to quote church fathers to bolster her support for abortion.
The mechanics and significance of this decision are worth reviewing, as many mainstream media reports are having trouble explaining it. All Catholics are obliged by the teaching of their faith to abstain from Holy Communion if they are in a state of grave sin. Religious in such a state must make a sacramental confession and receive absolution before receiving communion again. This is how Catholics understand and practice St. Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11:28-29: “Let a man examine himself, and then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without discerning the body of the Lord, eats and drinks to his own condemnation.”
A bishop or priest may intervene to prevent these communions if the sin is public and if the church member shows some level of obstinacy in refusing private correction.
In an open letter, Cordileone said he had spoken with Pelosi about the matter and that she had ignored his latest phone calls. He quoted Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s 2004 instruction, who wrote to US bishops:
“When a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest, his bishop should meet with him, instructing him in the teachings of the Church, advising him not to present himself for Holy Communion until he has put an end to the situation of sin, and the warning that otherwise he will be denied the Eucharist. When these precautionary measures fail to take effect and the person concerned, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to offer it.”
Some commentators have argued that this stance somehow violates the separation of church and state. Difficultly. Cordileone did not deny Pelosi the exercise of the position to which the population elected her. He denied it in the very matter on which he clearly has authority as its bishop.
Pelosi’s attitude was serious in the eyes of Archbishop Cordileone, as it involves him in a controversial situation about the Church’s doctrine regarding the Eucharist. Some Catholic bishops and commentators think that this form of discipline should not be exercised today for various reasons. It is sometimes argued that the public and most church members are too ignorant of the theology described above to understand this form of discipline and that they are likely to get the wrong impression or turn away from the church.
Others argue that imposing this form of discipline only raises more questions. Should it only fall to those who support abortion? Why not those who support the death penalty? Why not those who support the war?
For at least five decades, Catholic preaching and teaching about the necessity of confession, about being in a state of grace to receive communion properly, has all but disappeared. Many Catholics do not know what their faith teaches on these points, and so the fine print of canon law is not only unintuitive, but foreign to them.
But the proper response to ignorance is correction and remedial education.
You can say that there will be a temptation on the part of the Catholic faithful to defend the decision of Archbishop Cordileone, accumulating more and more repulsion towards Nancy Pelosi. Well, I think at this point the archbishop needs a defense.
Conscientious Catholics must admit that their sins sometimes prevent them from receiving Holy Communion. I spent many Sundays at the church entrance while my friends received. I remember a few Sundays years ago when I was the only person in a crowded church who didn’t receive communion. If I missed Mass it was my own fault, because I examined myself and found myself guilty of serious sins: lust, greed, gluttony, or yelling at my readers in the comments.
I’m not a good Catholic, and the sins I confess are a great way to avoid presenting myself as one. That’s why I like to talk about “practicing” faith, because it supports the idea that, someday, we will get well. In that case, we have to look at the archbishop not as a judge who renders a historic verdict, but as a referee who reminds us of the rules of the game.
MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY is a senior writer for National Review Online.
©2022 National Review. Published with permission. original in English.
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