The head of the Southern Baptist office in Washington D.C. once said to me during St. John Paul II's papacy, "You've got a pope there who really knows how to pope."
(Despite Baptist differences with Rome, he meant it as a deep compliment.) You might say something similar about San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone: There's an archbishop who knows how to archbishop.
Any Catholic paying attention is aware by now that, last week, Cordileone barred Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi from receiving Communion in his archdiocese (full text here). And that courageous act — the willingness to go first — has gotten a handful of other American bishops to announce their support as well (see list here). More will be coming.
That support by fellow bishops is important, not only for the current public controversies as we wait for the Supreme Court to hand down the Dobbs decision. There are troubling clashes within the Church itself over this question. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual June meeting this year will be worth watching carefully.
And, doubtless, efforts are already underway in Rome, by the usual suspects, to get Pope Francis to try to squash such bans. He's been silent about the Dobbs leak. The standard Vatican stance these days is talking tough about the evil of abortion (i.e., "like hiring a hitman to solve a problem") without any follow-up.
In a way, Archbishop Cordileone — who has been a forceful shepherd in various ways, especially in trying to reform Catholic schools in his archdiocese — couldn't ignore Pelosi's challenge. As he says in barring her from Communion, he's tried several times to meet with her — again — on abortion, but has gotten no response. And since the leak of the Alito draft decision on Dobbs, the Speaker has gone into high gear about "codifying" Roe v. Wade, i.e., securing a federal right to abortion through Congressional legislation.
Actually, Pelosi has more than once answered questions from journalists about Cordileone's and others' criticisms of her support, as a Catholic, for abortion — with a terse, "Whatever." And she often repeats what she apparently learned at Trinity College in the 1960s from wayward Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur that, for her, abortion and the right of women to choose is "sacred ground."
That may be so — for her. But if she has moved onto "sacred" ground, it's not Catholic ground. Technically, she's separated herself from the fold. But in broader terms, she's really joined a different church, one not aligned with the long tradition that comes down to us from Jesus Himself and His Apostles, through an unbroken line of successors. And she's quite willing to impose the tenets of that other faith on the nation.
Kudos to Archbishop Cordileone for reminding her — and the whole country — that you cannot be both a pro-abortion absolutist and an authentic Catholic. His ban will be read as a political statement. And he will reap a whirlwind — the one Senator Schumer has threatened will strike Supreme Court justices — from several quarters. But he's only doing what a bishop should do; make the faith clear, and not just theoretically but in a way that makes a difference in peoples' lives.
He's gone out of his way to explain, to anyone who takes the trouble to listen, that he's acting for pastoral not political reasons. In a separate letter he wrote to his priests, he deftly responded to the charge (which got its start among former Cardinal McCarrick and continues among his acolytes), that denying Communion to politicians is "weaponizing" the Eucharist. Cordileone counters: "one can also violate Church teaching and take Holy Communion for a political purpose as well, thus 'weaponizing' the Eucharist for one's own ulterior motives."
How many ordinary Catholics in the pews have assumed for decades now that you can be a Catholic and support abortion because of the bishops' inaction?
He quotes Vatican II's decree Gaudium et Spes: the Church's ancient and consistent teaching is that "from the first moment of conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes." (n. 51) In the years of debates about the Council, it's been rare that anyone notices its undeniable moral assertions.
Cordileone also invokes three popes — JPII, Benedict XVI, and Francis — as well as relevant Canon Law. And emphasizes that the lifting of the ban will require both public and personal — spiritual — conversion:
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.
Part of the problem he will face now is that the American bishops have been weak for decades about calling out serious dissenters. He rightly reminds Pelosi — and us — that, "A Catholic legislator who supports procured abortion, after knowing the teaching of the Church, commits a manifestly grave sin which is a cause of most serious scandal to others."
Most people today, however, think a scandal is merely the kind of thing you see in the supermarket tabloids while you're waiting to check out — Johnny and Amber stuff. But "scandal" in a theological sense means you become a "stumbling block" to others. How many other Catholic politicians and public figures have been led to ignore the Church's moral teachings because of Nancy Pelosi?
And how many ordinary Catholics in the pews have assumed for decades now that you can be a Catholic and support abortion because of the bishops' inaction? Like every evil, scandal has tentacles that grow and reach into every nook and cranny of human life — unless it's stopped.
Archbishop Cordileone will be long remembered in the Church now in much the same way as New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel is remembered for his excommunications of segregationists in 1962 — which led to a few public retractions.
But the numbers are not the most important thing. Or the politics. As the archbishop has suggested, it's about souls. Souls saved, or not. What Christianity is all about.
Robert Royal. "Lionheart." The Catholic Thing (May 23, 2022).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. Image credit: Steubenville Conferences, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History,The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, The Virgin and the Dynamo: Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2022 The Catholic Thing
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