Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordileone announced Friday that Rep. Nancy Pelosi will be barred from receiving Communion in response to her push to codify abortion rights, underscoring the nation’s widening divisions as the Supreme Court considers whether to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
His statement marks the latest clash between Cordileone and the House speaker over abortion rights, which Pelosi has championed.
“After numerous attempts to speak with Speaker Pelosi 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 she is not to be admitted to Holy Communion,” the archbishop said in a tweet about the San Francisco Democrat, who represents one of the most liberal congressional districts in the nation.
The move comes a year after Cordileone and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego became embroiled in a debate over excluding from Communion politicians who support abortion rights such as Pelosi and President Joe Biden, also a Catholic.
“To those who are advocating for abortion, I would say, ‘This is killing. Please stop the killing. You’re in a position to do something about it,’” Cordileone said last year in an interview with Catholic television network EWTN.
“The Eucharist is being weaponized and deployed as a tool in political warfare. This must not happen,” McElroy wrote in a statement published by Jesuit magazine America.
Cordileone has challenged Pelosi over her abortion stance several times. In 2021, she responded by saying: “The archbishop of the city, that area, of San Francisco and I have a disagreement about who should decide this. I believe that God has given us a free will to honor our responsibilities.”
“I keep saying to people who say things like that, when you have five children in six years and one day, we can talk about what business it is of any of us to tell anyone else what to do,” Pelosi added, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “For us it was a complete and total blessing, which we enjoy every day of our lives, but it’s none of our business how other people choose the size and timing of their families.”
Cordileone’s announcement drew strong reactions from some Democratic stalwarts.
“She’s an 82-year-old woman who has been a devout Catholic her entire life,” said one longtime Pelosi observer who did not want to speak publicly before the speaker weighed in. “What we know is she is a person of deep faith who deeply believes in privacy rights and is likely to maintain her view that this is something between herself and her church, and not something she wants litigated in public by friend or foe.”
Eric Jaye, a veteran San Francisco Democratic consultant who worked on Pelosi’s first House race in 1987, called the archbishop’s move “so predictable. He has been pushing ideological boundaries since the day he got here.”
“He might be the archbishop of San Francisco, but he is not from San Francisco,” Jaye added. “I don’t think in any way what he does reflects the opinion of the majority of the community of the Catholic faithful here in San Francisco.”
He stressed that the dispute was about church doctrine, not about Pelosi.
“This has nothing to do with American politics. It has everything to do with Vatican politics,” he said. “Are there political ramifications in San Francisco? No. There is not a single voter in Pelosi’s district who abandons their support for her because of this. In fact there are probably thousands who will join her because of this.”
Pelosi is speaker of the House, but Republicans are widely expected to gain control of Congress in the November midterm election, and many are prepared for her to announce her retirement after she wins reelection — setting off an intraparty battle to represent the solidly Democratic district.
Though she has clashed with her party’s progressive wing, she has maintained firm control over the caucus and been largely successful at keeping members in line.
A spokesman for Pelosi did not respond to requests for comment.
Jim Ross, a Democratic consultant who has worked in San Francisco politics for 35 years, suggested that Cordileone was attempting to use Pelosi’s name recognition and popularity in the city to draw attention to his message.
“Pelosi’s maybe three times, four times more popular than the archbishop and much better known,” Ross said. “He’s trying to use Nancy Pelosi to make a point around a woman’s right to choose. This is a publicity stunt that has no real impact on either the debate in San Francisco where it stands or anything else that’s really pertinent.”
Ross, a lapsed Catholic, was also critical of the direction Cordileone has led the church in terms of its relationship with the city.
“The archbishop in San Francisco has not been relevant in civil life in years. He’s made a choice — that he wants to be in opposition to the civic and government life in San Francisco rather than find laces of agreement. As somebody who’s a lapsed Catholic, who went to Catholic school, I found it disappointing that the archbishop hasn’t found a way to work with the city on things that they can work on together.”
Like much of the West Coast, San Francisco has roots in the Catholic Church and Spanish missions, Ross said, noting that the city has large communities of Irish, Italian and Latino families, as well as what was once a large and influential parochial school system.
Oil magnate Gordon Getty, Gov. Jerry Brown and William Newsom, the late father of the current governor, attended St. Ignatius College Preparatory; Gov. Gavin Newsom attended Notre Dame Des Victoires for a few years.
Ross noted that a common inquiry among native San Franciscans is, “Where did you go to school?”
“What they’re asking is not where you went to college,” he said. “They’re asking which parochial high school did you go to?”
Outside San Francisco, the fight over whether politicians who support abortion rights should get Communion goes back many years and has ebbed and flowed.
Father Thomas Rausch, professor emeritus of Catholic theology and theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, noted that although Cordileone’s move applies only to the Archdiocese of San Francisco — Pelosi would be able to receive Communion in other dioceses — “his actions reflect the division in the American Catholic hierarchy.”
“We have some bishops who insist on making abortion the preeminent moral issue faced by the church, and we have others who are personally against abortion but do not want to politicize the Eucharist,” Rausch said.
In the Vatican, however, church officials do not appear inclined to support Cordileone’s approach, Rausch said.
“I don’t want to question the archbishop’s right to teach on faith and morals,” he said. “But the question is, how does one resolve a highly controversial question like this when there’s a difference between one’s personal position and what is the law of the land?”
Years ago, the late Cardinal Edward Egan of New York publicly said that he had an “understanding” with then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani that he would not try to take Communion. That became public in 2008 when Giuliani took Communion during a papal visit to New York and Egan said that it should not have been allowed.
In 2009, the Bishop of Rhode Island, Thomas Tobin, barred then-Rep. Patrick Kennedy from Communion because of his support for abortion rights. A few months before that, some conservative Catholics sharply criticized Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley for officiating at the funeral of Patrick Kennedy’s father, Sen. Edward Kennedy, because of his support for abortion rights.
Last year, a group of 60 congressional Democrats including California Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard and Ted Lieu and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but notably not Pelosi, signed a statement urging the church to not deny Communion to supporters of abortion rights.
“The Sacrament of Holy Communion is central to the life of practicing Catholics, and the weaponization of the Eucharist to Democratic lawmakers for their support of a woman’s safe and legal access to abortion is contradictory,” the statement said. “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.”
Although the Catholic Church strongly opposes abortion rights, the views of American Catholics are divided along lines that are similar to the rest of the country: A majority believes that abortion should be legal in most circumstances and opposes overturning Roe vs. Wade.
Nationwide, about 60% of Americans say abortion should be legal all (19%) or most (42%) of the time, while about 40% say it should be illegal with some exceptions (29%) or illegal in all cases (8%), according to a recent large-scale survey by the Pew Research Center.
The divide among Catholics is similar: 56% of Catholics say abortion should be legal in all (13%) or most (43%) cases, while 42% say it should be illegal with some exceptions (32%) or illegal in all cases (10%), Pew found.
The views of white and Latino Catholics are almost identical. Polling by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 59% of white Catholics say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 57% of Latino Catholics said the same.
For most Catholics, the church’s teachings are not key to their decision about abortion. About 4 in 10 Catholics say religion is either “very” or “extremely” important in shaping their views on abortion, Pew found. That contrasts with white evangelical Protestants, among whom 73% say religion is very or extremely important in shaping their views. Evangelicals are now the biggest force in the antiabortion movement.
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This story was originally published May 20, 2022 7:17 PM.