(RNS) — Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, who oversees the Archdiocese of San Francisco, announced on Friday (May 20) he is barring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from taking Communion in churches he oversees, citing her support for abortion rights.
“After numerous attempts to speak with her to help her understand the grave evil she is perpetrating, the scandal she is causing, and the danger to her own soul she is risking, I have determined that the point has come in which I must make a public declaration that she is not to be admitted to Holy Communion unless and until she publicly repudiate her support for abortion ‘rights’ and confess and receive absolution for her cooperation in this evil in the sacrament of Penance,” Cordileone wrote in a letter sent to churchgoers in his archdiocese.
In his letter and a separate interview with America Magazine, Cordileone accused Pelosi of “scandal” — a term used in Catholic theological parlance to signify actions that can lead believers to sin.
Representatives for Pelosi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In his letter, Cordileone insisted he still considers Pelosi, who speaks often of her Catholic faith, to be a “sister in Christ.” Her “advocacy for the care of the poor and vulnerable,” he said, “elicits my admiration.”
“I assure you that my action here is purely pastoral, not political,” he added.
But recent debates over the issue of Communion and abortion cast doubt as to whether Catholics and non-Catholics alike will see Cordileone’s actions — the censure of one of the highest-ranking politicians in the country amid a national debate over abortion — as something apolitical. While crafting a document on the Eucharist in 2021, Catholic bishops openly feuded over whether to deny Communion to President Joe Biden — a Catholic who, like Pelosi, has voiced support for abortion rights. Amid back-and-forth over the issue, Cordileone was one of the most strident voices challenging politicians who support abortion rights.
Other bishops, however, expressed opposition to the idea. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, who oversees the Archdiocese of Washington, told Religion News Service in December 2020 that he did not support denying Communion to Biden over abortion, saying, “I don’t want to go to the table with a gun on the table first.”
As the debate raged, a group of 60 Catholic House Democrats, led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, released a “statement of principles” in June urging U.S. Catholic bishops to avoid “weaponizing” the Eucharist.
“No elected officials have been threatened with being denied the Eucharist as they support and have supported policies contrary to the Church teachings, including supporting the death penalty, separating migrant children from their parents, denying asylum to those seeking safety in the United States, limiting assistance for the hungry and food insecure, and denying rights and dignity to immigrants,” read the lawmakers’ letter to the bishops.
Officials at the Vatican cautioned bishops against the debate in the first place, and bishops ultimately created a document that barely mentioned political figures.
Cordileone’s strident rebuke of Pelosi stands in contrast to Pope Francis, who welcomed President Joe Biden to the Vatican in October and did not bar him from receiving Communion in Rome, which the pontiff oversees. After their meeting, Biden said the pope told him he was a “good Catholic” and to “keep receiving communion.” The Vatican did not dispute the president’s account.
While the church hierarchy has long condemned abortion, Catholics in the United States are largely supportive of abortion rights. According to a 2019 Pew Research Survey, 68% of Catholics in the country do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe.
Jamie L. Manson, head of the advocacy organization Catholics for Choice, decried Cordileone’s actions as akin to “waging a culture war that the bishops have already retreated from.”
“Last year, a core contingent of U.S. bishops launched an unholy crusade to prohibit President Biden and other pro-choice politicians from receiving Communion,” Manson said in a statement. “Thankfully, they backed down due to overwhelming pushback from a vast majority of Catholics from both sides of the political divide who let them know that abusing the power of our sacraments is unacceptable. But Archbishop Cordileone still won’t relent.”