Last week, I wrote about a group of US bishops, with the help of friendly media outlets, that has tried to convince Catholics that their initiatives, decisions, and public positions were in step with the pope’s message, even though they clearly weren’t. My article focused on one very conspicuous example of this – their creation of the false impression that the pope supported their campaign to publicly deny Holy Communion to Catholic pro-choice politicians. This week, I will explain why he disagrees with their position.

The issue of denying Holy Communion to pro-choice politicians is emotionally-charged for many Catholics. This is certainly understandable. The notion that a public official can claim to be a devout Catholic but openly oppose the right to life of the unborn is jarring for those of us who take seriously the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life. There is an incongruity between a politician publicly advocating for abortion on demand and receiving the Eucharist. The scriptural basis for this is found in the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Cor 11:27-29)[1]

Well-catechized Catholics know how this scripture passage is traditionally applied. In order to be properly disposed to receive communion, we must be in a state of grace. At a basic level, this means if we are aware that we have committed a mortal sin, we must receive absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation prior to receiving communion again.

As I pointed out in last week’s article, this teaching is incapsulated in Canon 916, which states that “Anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not … receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession, unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess.”

Note that these teachings use language like “examine yourselves” and “anyone who is conscious”—implying that ordinarily it is left to the conscience of the individual Catholic to discern their own worthiness to receive. Still, there are some situations where the minister of Holy Communion has the responsibility to deny the Eucharist to a member of the faithful. This is articulated in Canon 915 in the Code of Canon Law: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion” (emphasis added).

Those bishops favoring enacting a policy of denying the Eucharist believe that pro-choice politicians fall within the category of “others.” Some seem to believe that the Church explicitly prohibits pro-choice politicians from communion, not realizing that the position is an interpretation of the canon by some canonists and bishops. This view was strongly promoted by Cardinal Raymond Burke, and it caught on with US conservative Catholics in 2004 when John Kerry ran as the Democratic party’s nominee for president.

Since then, for many in the US Church, a bishop’s stance on this interpretation of Canon 915 has effectively become a litmus test for that bishop’s orthodoxy. For example, in May, various conservative Catholic websites kept running tallies of bishops who publicly supported San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s decision to deny communion to Nancy Pelosi. Bishops who did not support Cordileone’s approach were vilified by many conservative Catholics.

When the pope’s position on the issue became clear during a recent round of interviews with journalists, the leadership of the US bishops could no longer deny that the pope’s views did not align with theirs. Their disappointment has been palpable. It doesn’t seem that they have made much of an attempt to understand his position or reconsider their approach, however.

Much to their credit, the United States episcopacy has been persistent in its continued public opposition to abortion laws, despite the challenges of a rapidly secularizing culture in which millions of Catholics have stopped practicing the faith. Despite the ongoing efforts of the bishops and the pro-life movement as a whole, public opinion on abortion has not changed significantly in decades. It is clear that the vast majority of people in our society—Catholic or not—do not share the Church’s views on abortion. Compounding this, the credibility of the pro-life movement has become increasingly compromised due to its proximity to reactionary groups and an extremely polarized political culture.

In this climate, legal solutions can only do so much and will likely be short-lived if they lack public support. Unless there is a marked change of mindset in our culture, recent political victories may become pyrrhic ones. The US Catholic bishops’ focus on abortion as the preeminent political issue may galvanize the “base,” but it does little to change hearts and minds. In fact, it seems that the USCCB’s abortion-first political approach has turned many people off to Catholicism as a whole. When removed from the fundamental principles in which the pro-life position is rooted, opposition to abortion makes little sense.

Remember, as Catholics, we oppose abortion because we believe every human being is beloved by God and has inviolable and immeasurable human dignity. Even though Pope Francis has been quick to point out, “The issue of abortion is not essentially religious. It is a human problem prior to any religious option,” many people—including Catholics—see opposition to abortion as a purely religious phenomenon. I am reminded of the perennial pro-choice slogan, “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries.” We must remain conscious that a singular focus on abortion can potentially turn many people away from the faith, long before they have the opportunity to learn from the Church about the love of God or human dignity.

Pope Francis has made his position on this absolutely clear since early in his papacy. As he told Fr. Antonio Spadaro in his groundbreaking 2013 interview:

“The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

For nine years, Pope Francis has been repeating this point—that “moral consequences” flow from a burning desire to follow Jesus and to embrace his salvific message. Many of the hot-button moral teachings of the Church are, in our present age, typically accepted only by those who are already motivated by a desire to live out our faith. For example, few Catholics today abstain from sex before marriage or don’t use contraception unless they are morally convicted to follow Church teaching on those issues. Pope Francis realizes that a person must accept the basic principles of the faith before they will embrace more difficult moral teachings.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis reminded us that we need to be very careful about how we present the Catholic faith. He explained that “In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects. In this way certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning” (14). Pro-lifers know how they are portrayed by the media and how their positions and motives have been distorted. This has only increased as the pro-life movement has become more closely associated with reactionaryism and right-wing extremists.

Pope Francis continued, “The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message. We need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty and attractiveness.”

Pope Francis sees the issue of abortion as part of a united whole—in the context of the promotion and protection of the dignity of all people. That’s not to say that he doesn’t specifically decry abortion and other moral evils that are prioritized by the US Church (as many bishops are quick to point out). But he sees every issue relating to human dignity as connected. When asked about the idea of “non-negotiable values” in a 2014 interview, he replied, “I have never understood the expression non-negotiable values. Values are values, and that is it. I can’t say that, of the fingers of a hand, there is one less useful than the rest. Whereby I do not understand in what sense there may be negotiable values.”

Our mission as Catholics is to promote the human dignity of all. As Pope Francis might say, we must work to end the throwaway culture, and the way to do that is to strike a new balance in our approach to the culture. We cannot do this by retreating into our enclaves and opining about the best ways to punish others. Francis wrote in Fratelli Tutti, “Persons or situations we find unpleasant or disagreeable are simply deleted in today’s virtual networks; a virtual circle is then created, isolating us from the real world in which we are living” (47).

When Church leaders become known for lashing out publicly at political figures (regardless of their justifications for doing so), they project an image of the Church as an enclave for ideologues to outsiders while fostering a “bunker mentality” among its members. Those who are not attracted to life in the bunker are pushed to the margins or give up on the Church altogether.

This is not ideal, or even tolerable, for a Church that hopes to evangelize. As St. Paul VI wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “This question of ‘how to evangelize’ is permanently relevant, because the methods of evangelizing vary according to the different circumstances of time, place and culture” (40).

One way to foster unity is to seek common ground with those whose beliefs differ from ours. We have all witnessed the passion and commitment of those who are active in the pro-choice movement. No matter what some pro-lifers want to think about them, the truth is they honestly believe they are standing up for justice and women’s rights. Pope Francis has long encouraged Catholics to start dialogue by seeking areas of common ground. Declaring open and public war with them over abortion will only add more hostility to an already contentious environment.

In his address to the US bishops in June 2021, Archbishop Christophe Pierre said, “If we take a step back, we observe that society is in crisis. It is not merely that people are polarized or that the culture no longer supports the Faith; there is a genuine crisis of authority. There is a lack of authority on the part of those who pretend to exercise power; a lack of trust and belief in those who are supposed to have authority, namely those in leadership … No one seems to be offering real values or solutions to bring about healing. These factors have created the crisis in both society and the Church.”

In our current climate in the Church, people’s views on disciplinary or pastoral questions are portrayed as black-and-white binaries and all-or-nothing issues. Those who don’t support Archbishop Cordileone’s actions are accused of thinking there’s nothing wrong with politicians who support abortion, or of believing that anyone, regardless of circumstances, should receive communion. The real question isn’t about reception of communion, however. The question is about denial of communion. Another factor to consider is the effect of making a public spectacle of the issue, as Cordileone has, or of keeping it private. Pope Francis has spoken strongly against making it “political,” and it’s undeniable that the fallout from this has been political—including Speaker Pelosi’s words and actions since the decree. In my estimation, Cordileone’s decision has only emboldened people on both sides of the culture war.

Typically ignored by Catholics who support denying communion is the novelty of Archbishop Cordileone’s approach. Note that no other bishops’ conferences have seriously considered similar policies, and neither of Pope Francis’s two predecessors spoke on the issue during their papacies. (Pope Benedict’s 2004 letter to the US bishops was written prior to his election as pope and was not meant to be made public.) Back in 2008, John Allen wrote about this issue, noting, “it has long been observed that the question of denying communion to politicians who don’t follow church teaching is, in some sense, a uniquely American debate that rarely arises in other cultures. During the Jubilee Year in 2000, for example, Pope John Paul II personally administered communion to Rome’s pro-choice mayor on several occasions, and when former Prime Minister Tony Blair attended Mass in John Paul’s private chapel, he too received communion. (At that stage, Blair had not yet formally converted to Catholicism but was understood to be undergoing preparation).”

Over the last two decades, some of the most conservative bishops in the US were conflicted about the question. For example, Cardinal Francis George, when asked in 2004 whether he would deny communion to presidential candidate John Kerry, responded, “I’m not going to answer that, because I haven’t thought it through thoroughly with the help of my brother bishops. You’re asking me to impose a sanction, and I just got done saying that we should be careful about imposing sanctions and try to do so together.”

As recently as 2014, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told Allen in a Crux interview, “By now that inflammatory issue is in the past. I don’t hear too many bishops saying it’s something that we need to debate nationally, or that we have to decide collegially. I think most bishops have said, ‘We trust individual bishops in individual cases.’ Most don’t think it’s something for which we have to go to the mat.” In an appearance on Fox News in 2019, commenting on a South Carolina priest who announced that he’d denied communion to Joe Biden at his parish, Dolan said, “I wouldn’t do it.” In May 2021, however, he reportedly asked for his name to be removed from a list of over 60 bishop signatories of a letter asking Archbishop Jose Gomez to remove a vote on the contentious document on the Eucharist from the agenda of the upcoming USCCB meeting.

Pope Francis has identified several American prelates who embrace his approach to pastoral leadership by appointing them to the College of Cardinals. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my last article, these prelates have been largely shunned or rejected by the bulk of their fellow US bishops. Many of the bishops don’t seem to realize—or don’t care about—the qualities in these leaders that the pope thinks are necessary for the Church at this point in history. Instead, it seems that the USCCB’s strategy is to go full steam ahead on their preferred course, no matter what the pope or the global Church has to say about it.

In my next piece on this topic, I will explore in greater depth the relationship between Pope Francis and the US Church.

Note:

[1] New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Image: Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Pope Francis at Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland, on September 24, 2015. Kerry was at the center of the communion controversy during his presidential run in 2004 [State Department photo/ Public Domain].


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Understanding Pope Francis on the ‘communion wars’
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