A Tale of Two Bishops - The Eucharist, the Unborn and the President

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.

Works Cited
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice
Vaticana, 2012.
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


Anonymous said…
I think the Church should have been visible and vocal as soon as issues such as gay marriage, gender fluidity, sexual abuse and abortion were raised. Had the warning and disapproval been expressed earlier, denying the Eucharist would have been expected and seen as a logical consequence.
Anonymous said…
Certainly, adhering to and supporting the murder of unborn babies is a grave sin - as is going against a Church teaching. If that be the case, no one - particularly those espousing this view publicly (politicians) should receive Our Lord. To do so would be to compound their sin by receiving Him unworthily.

If they are unworthy to receive Him, what about the priest, Bishop, Cardinal, or even the Pope who is willing to give Our Lord to public sinners. Are they not, also, culpable?

Remember St. Athanasius who said, "The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops."