With his pastoral letter powerfully reaffirming the importance of the Church’s teaching on the dignity of human life, San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has issued a serious challenge: to all Catholics, certainly, but to his brother bishops in particular, and especially to the prominent Catholic politicians who support legal abortion—notably including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, whose residence is in the San Francisco archdiocese.
“I tremble that if I do not forthrightly challenge Catholics under my pastoral care who advocate for abortion, both they and I will have to answer to God for innocent blood,” writes Archbishop Cordileone. He mentions no names, and he emphasizes that a bishop should admonish a sinner privately before taking any public action. But this pastoral letter cannot be the work of a man who plans to issue one more public statement and leave it at that. Any reasonable reader concludes that the archbishop has already admonished Pelosi (and others, less prominent, in the same position), and is now contemplating the next step.
“Abortion is the axe laid to the roots of the tree of human rights,” Archbishop Cordileone writes; “when our culture encourages the violation of life at its youngest and most vulnerable condition, other ethical norms cannot stand for long.” So the question of abortion is not just one issue on a long list of considerations; it is—as the American bishops have said repeatedly—the pre-eminent public issue of our day.
The public debate on abortion has become confused, the archbishop acknowledges. “The topic is swathed in sophistries by its advocates and discussion about it is forbidden in many venues.” He goes on to suggest that “this conspiracy of disinformation and silence is fueled by fear of what it would mean to recognize the reality with which we are dealing.”
The archbishop’s case against abortion, while it is strong, is not unique. He repeats the argument—well-known to pro-lifers, but rarely heard in the public square—that the question of when human life begins is a medical or scientific question, not a theological or philosophical one. And the medical/scientific answer is quite clear: human life begins at conception. Cordileone knows, too, that the argument for “choice” is a cheap rhetorical ploy, because abortion advocates are not interested in giving women any “choice” but abortion.
But again, these arguments are (or should be) familiar. The pastoral is newsworthy primarily because the archbishop directly identifies “another source of scandal that pertains specifically to Catholics in public life: if their participation in the evil of abortion is not addressed forthrightly by their pastors, this can lead Catholics (and others) to assume that the moral teaching of the Catholic Church on the inviolate sanctity of human life is not seriously held.”
Here Archbishop Cordileone is joining a debate that has roiled the American hierarchy for years, and come to a head this year with the election of President Joe Biden, another Catholic who aggressively promotes unrestricted abortion on demand. Archbishop Samuel Aquila has addressed the question in America magazine, arguing that the Church “must be willing to challenge Catholics persisting in grave sin.” That article drew an immediate protest from Cardinal Blase Cupich, who asked for a “public clarification,”. So an old debate was renewed, between American prelates who wish to fulfill their duty to protect the sanctity of the Eucharist and the consistency of Church teaching, and those who suggest that any disciplinary action would “politicize” the Eucharist.
The point, as Father Thomas Weinandy has observed, is that the Eucharist has already been politicized, by the public figures who profess their “devout” Catholicism while defending and promoting the slaughter of unborn children. Church leaders cannot dodge the challenge by saying that no politician is perfect. As Archbishop Cordileone puts it, “We all fall short in various ways, but there is a great difference between struggling to live according to the teachings of the Church and rejecting those teachings.”
Along with his pastoral letter, Archbishop Cordileone released a very useful “Questions Answered” section explaining aspects of the document. He disclosed that he had been drafting this pastoral “for a long time, but did not want to publish it during the election year, precisely to avoid further confusion among those who would misperceive this as ‘politicizing’ the issue.”
But eventually the issue had to be addressed, the archbishop explained:
If a bishop has members of his flock who are erring and causing others to wander from the truth, he has a moral obligation to call them to account. This should be done privately at first, and with great patience. However, if every other medicine fails, it may be necessary for them to refrain from receiving the Holy Eucharist until they repent.
The main question before the American hierarchy—the question that Archbishop Aquila and Cardinal Cupich are debating this year, the very same question that then-Archbishop Burke and then-Cardinal McCarrick debated twenty years ago—is whether Catholic politicians who promote abortion should be barred from Communion. Still it is noteworthy that Archbishop Cordileone mentions another disciplinary option, with a sidebar on “The Medicine of Excommunication.”
American Catholic bishops have been issuing statements for decades now, insisting on the crucial importance of the abortion issue. But to date, most have declined to take the next step, to impose some form of discipline on the prominent Catholics who have routinely ignored the Church’s teaching—and who now compound their offense, by threatening to silence or to punish anyone who upholds that teaching.
Archbishop Cordileone has repeated and underlined the arguments for Eucharistic coherence. More important, he has made public the case for taking that crucial next step. So now, while we hope and pray that Speaker Pelosi and her colleagues will recognize the force of the arguments, we are left to wonder if and when the archbishop will take that next step.