A Tale of Two Bishops
For the first time in over half a century, and for the second time in the history of the nation, the president of the United States is a self-proclaimed Catholic. However, President Joe Biden’s professed commitment to his Catholic faith has raised a few eyebrows because during his lengthy public career, Biden has defended and promoted legalized abortion. His election to the White House and his frequent referrals to the importance of the Catholic Faith in his life, have caused many in the Church to debate whether and how the Church’s hierarchy should respond to the contradiction between his public support of abortion and his public profession of faith. Neighboring bishops from one of the largest states in the union have taken different approaches in their responses to this dilemna. In an article published in America, the Jesuit Review, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego argued that denying pro-choice politicians the Eucharist will bring “destructive consequences” and that doing so is a “weaponization of the Eucharist…in political warfare.” Several miles north in San Francisco, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone published the pastoral letter, “Before I Formed in the Womb, I Knew You,” and in it Cordileone states that pastors of the Church may determine that public figures giving the public example of cooperation with abortion may be publicly corrected by being excluded from the reception of Holy Communion.
Bishop McElroy opens his piece saying that he is responding to a “growing movement [that] has emerged in the church in the United States that calls upon the bishops of our nation to publicly exclude President Joseph R. Biden and other Catholic public officials from the Eucharist.” His commentary, published on May 5th, 2021, is entitled, “Bishop McElroy: The Eucharist is being weaponized for political ends. This must not happen.” The editor notes that it is part of a series called The Conversation which offers “diverse perspectives on important and contested issues in the life of the church.” McElroy begins by outlining his understanding of the argument to refuse the Eucharist to Catholic political leaders who support legalized abortion. He summarizes a three-part argument: “The president supports positions on abortion that clearly depart from the teaching of the church on an extremely grave moral issue; the long tradition of
the church requires personal worthiness to receive the Eucharist; and the persistent rejection of clear Catholic teaching extinguishes that worthiness.”
Admitting that it is “an immense sadness” that it does not appear that there will soon be legal protection for the unborn against abortion, McElroy warns that, “the proposal to exclude pro-choice Catholic political leaders from the Eucharist is the wrong step.” He defends his position by affirming that the sacred nature of the Eucharist, demands that it must “never be used for a political end.” He refers to the crux of the argument to exclude proabortion politicians from the Eucharist as a “theology of unworthiness.” He sees it as a twist on the traditional “theology of the worthiness” that is rooted in St. Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians that no one should eat the bread nor drink the cup of the Lord unworthily. For McElroy, those advocating for excluding proabortion politicians are focused on the disciplinary elements of the theology rather than the other elements. In a church of sinners, he argues, equating “worthiness” with the full acceptance of all the teachings of the Church is an improbable standard. Secondly, he asserts that abortion and euthanasia ought not be singled out as the particular grave evils, support of which deems one “unworthy.” He questions, “why hasn’t racism been included in the call for eucharistic sanctions against political leaders?” For racism, he reminds readers, is also intrinsically evil. The bishop recalls the teaching of Pope Francis that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” McElroy concludes by asking, “Is the central 1 identity of the invitation of Christ to the Eucharist a sign of personal worthiness or the graced call of the God of mercy?” He urges that Christ’s “unrelenting invitation to all” be emphasized over exclusion and unworthiness.
On May 1, four days before McElroy’s piece was published online, Archbishop Cordelione released the pastoral letter, Before I Formed You in the Womb, I Knew You. In it, Cordelione takes an entirely different approach from his brother bishop. A pastoral letter is an official communication from the bishop to the people of his diocese, and as such, is a formal exercise of his ministry. The letter, which addresses the evil of abortion and the participation of Catholics in public life, is fundamentally pastoral in nature.
Francis, Apostolic Exhoration, Evangelii Gaudium, (24 November 2013), 47. 1
Through it, the Archbishop teaches his flock, calls them to conversion and to the avoidance of all cooperation with evil, and he defends the possiblity of discipline for those who publicly cause scandal. The letter, which is introduced by recalling the horror of legalized abortion in this nation, consists of four sections that demonstrate: the gravity of the evil of abortion, the way to avoid cooperation in this evil, the implications of sinful cooperation and the reception of Holy Communion, and the “special responsibility that Catholics prominent in public life have with regard to the common good.”
Although the letter is addresses specific Catholic teaching on the sacred dignity of human life and the methodology of discerning Catholic morality, this article focuses on Cordelione’s words both directed to and about Catholics in public life who do not abide by the Church’s clear teaching on abortion. First, the Archbishop devotes several paragraphs to the problem of anyone, not just public figures, who present themselves at the Eucharistic banquet while rejecting the teachings of the Church on the sanctity of human life. He is clear that they “should not receive the Eucharist”(11). He further acknowledges that “worthiness” is an inner state, and “only God can judge that”(11). He affirms, no one is truly worthy to receive Jesus Christ himself, rather, it is a great gift and mercy to which God invites us. Furthermore, he admonishes that we must be reconciled to God through the sacrament of Penance before reception of Holy Communion if we are aware of grave sin. Granting that this is generally a private matter, he states that the case of public figures “who profess to be Catholic and promote abortion,” is a different reality. The Archbishop writes, “this is a matter of persistent, obdurate, and public rejection of Catholic teaching”(12). This situation, he explains, makes unique demands of the pastors of the Church, who are charged “in caring for the salvation of souls”(12), because it opens into the realm of scandal. Cordileone quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church, defining scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” The Archbishop explains that not only is the pastor called to exercise his ministry 2 in calling a proabortion Catholic leader to conversion, but out of care for all souls entrusted to him, he must make clear the seriousness of Church teaching on the
2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2284
“inviolate sanctity of human life.” If the public figure, who cooperates in evil by actively promoting abortion does not respond to private admonitions, and other avenues of corrections, then because of his/her public example “this correction can also take the public form of exclusion from the reception of Holy Communion”(14). Cordelione implores his fellow Catholics “who openly advocate for the legitimacy of abortion…to heed the perennial call of to conversion…,” but if they are unwilling to abondon their advocacy, he instructs them, “you should not come forward to receive Holy Communion” (14). The Archbishop concludes his letter by defending the timeliness of this exhortation. He recalls the U.S. bishops’ pronouncement that abortion is the “preeminent issue” of our time for it is “a specific act that perpetuates a grave moral evil”… and that by ending 20% of pregnancies in this nation it is inflicting a “genocide against the unborn”(15). The letter closes with a particular call to various individual groups to do their part to help build a society that respects all human life.
Before evaluating the two different approaches to the question of pro-abortion politicians receiveing the Eucharist, it is worth reviewing what the Catholic Church professes about the Eucharist, and considering the bishop’s ministry within the life of the Church. St. John Paul II in his encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, quoted Vatican II teaching, “For the most holy Eucharist contains the Church's entire spiritual wealth: Christ himself, our passover and living bread. Through his own flesh, now made living and life-giving by the Holy Spirit, he offers life to men”. The Eucharist makes present 3 the paschal mystery of Jesus’ saving life, death and resurrection. Being the true presence of the Incarnate Lord, the Eucharist is an efficacious sign of the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. It both unites her to Christ and symbolizes the unity of members of the Body with each other and with Jesus Christ the Head.
While all of the baptized are incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ and thus share in the Lord’s offices of priest, prophet and king, the ministerial priesthood, conferred in the sacrament of Holy Orders is an essentially unique participation in Christ’s priesthood. It “is the means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his
Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests Presbyterorum 3 Ordinis, 5.
Church.” The fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders is conferred on the bishop 4 through ordination. In each bishop’s service to the Church, “Christ himself … is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth.” Through the sacrament, the bishop is charged with and 5 given the grace to teach, govern and sanctify the local Church under his care.
The question of whether or not Catholics who publicly promote abortion should receive Holy Communion is an important one, especially now that both the President of the United States, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives are self-proclaimed Catholics who adovate for abortion. Furthermore, it is fitting and appropriate that the bishops, as ministers within their local Churches and as members of the collegial body of bishops discuss and discern the best way forward in this question. It must be emphasized that the Eucharist is “source and summit of the Christian life,” therefore it 6 is the most serious responsiblity of the bishops to protect and hand on the sacred gift that Christ gave to his Apostles on the night before he died.
Bishop McElory’s warning is valid, the Eucharist must never be “weaponized.” The dispensation of all of the sacraments, but especially this “the sum and summary of our faith.” cannot become a chess piece in a political game. McElroy predicts that 7 excluding “pro-choice Catholic political leaders from the Eucharist… will bring tremendously destructive consequences—not because of what it says about abortion, but because of what it says about the Eucharist.” Wisdom and prudence demand that pastors prayerfully consider this grave form of discipline, and the message that would be professed by such and action.
Archbishop Cordileone’s pastoral letter is likewise deeply concerned for what such an action would “say about the Eucharist,” and this concern permeates the entirety of the letter. First, the seriousness of his concern is apparent in his decision to issue a pastoral letter which is a formal exercise of his ministry as successor to the Apostles.
CCC 1547. 4
CCC 1548. 5
CCC 1324. 6
CCC 1327. 7
McElory’s peice in the America magazine, is an important contribution to the discussion facing the bishops, particularly considering that many speculate that the bishops of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops may take up the issue as a body. It is not, however, a pastoral letter directed to teaching, governing and sanctifying the flock. In the first section of Cordileone’s letter, “The Human Foundation, Law and Science” he takes questions of law and science “off the table,” so to speak, so that he might direct the bulk of his work to theological and pastoral questions.
Second, the Archbishop points out that the determination of “unworthiness” is based soley on public advocacy of grave evil in stubborn resistance against Church teaching. He writes, “It is important to state that “worthiness” in this matter does not concern the inner state of one’s soul: only God can judge that.” The Archbishop does
not confine his message to the problem of proabortion politicians, rather his exhortation extends to any Catholics who promote abortion or advocate for its legitimacy. Third, McElroy quotes the Catechism teaching that Our Lord instituted the Eucharist, and entrusted it to the Church as, “a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity…,” and he warns that “A national policy of excluding pro-choice political leaders from the Eucharist will constitute an assault on that unity, on that charity,” however, it is precisely that unity and charity that Cordileone defends with his letter. There is no unity or integrity in publicly affirming the Catholic faith while stubbornly opposing one of her “most fundamental teachings,” and public support for killing innocent human life is enimical to charity.
Bishop McElroy’s commentary published a few days after Archbishop Cordelione’s pastoral letter deserves thoughtful consideration. However, it is clear that the Archbishop of San Francisco is not weaponizing the greatest mystery of the Church, but rather, safeguarding it. His is a bold statement on the evil of abortion, the impossibility of Catholics to cooperate with it, and the insistance that those who publicly reject this teaching have severed their communion with the Incarnate Lord and his Body, the Church. It is their public, persistent, and willful attachment to the grave sin of abortion that makes it tenable for pastors to withhold the Eucharist from pro-abortion Catholic leaders. In writing the document, the Archbishop of San Francisco fulfills the call of his vocation to teach the faith, govern the Church under his care, and encourage worship “in spirit in truth” for the building up of the Kingdom of God and the 8 sanctification of souls.
Sent to Catholic News World by Author: Margaret Elizabeth Gillson is a wife of almost 25 years and a mother of 10 children. She has a Masters Degree in Theology from Catholic Distance University and a Bachelors Degree in History and Spanish from the University of Virginia. She is the author of the blog: achildscatholicscripturestudy.
com and of a series of scripture reflections for children based on the mysteries of the rosary. She and her family live in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington Virginia.
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice
Robert McElroy, ”Bishop McElroy: The Eucharist is being weaponized for political ends.
This must not happen.”America, Jesuit Review, (May 5, 2021) Accessed May 14, 2021,
Salvatore Joseph Cordileone, Before I Formed You in the Womb, I Knew You, A
Pastoral Letter on the Human Dignity of the Unborn, Holy Communion, and Catholics in
Public Life, May 1 2021, https://www.priestsforlife.org/pdf/21-05-archbishop-cordileoneletter.pdf or see: