In a recent interview, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California and outspoken advocate of abortion rights, told a C-SPAN reporter that her abortion advocacy has not resulted in her being refused Holy Communion. She said: “I think some of it is regional. It depends on the bishop of a certain region and fortunately for me, communion has not been withheld, and I’m a regular communicant so that would be a severe blow to me if that were the case.”
Speaker Pelosi was one of several Catholic lawmakers who support abortion rights to receive Communion in April during a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in Washington, D.C.
The application of Church law in this area is generally the responsibility of the politician’s bishop, and it’s no secret that the bishops of the United States are not of one mind on this subject. So in that sense, Speaker Pelosi is right, in practice the application of Church law is merely “regional.”
However, the principles at play here indeed are universal and objective. Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law provides: “Those . . . who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” Some prelates have said, “I would never withhold Communion,” but such a view flatly contradicts the Church’s law in this area.
Similarly, Pope John Paul II, in his final encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, citing Canon 915, wrote:
“The judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience. However, in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly, and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved. The Code of Canon Law refers to this situation of a manifest lack of proper moral disposition when it states that those who ‘obstinately persist in manifest grave sin’ are not to be admitted to Eucharistic communion.”
Bishops who have upheld the plain, intended meaning of Canon 915 are not witchhunters or political activists. One thinks of the measured, pastorally sensitive approach of Archbishop Burke, who now holds the highest judicial office in the Church. Rather, such bishops are concerned about three S’s:
Scandal: Allowing public figures who actively promote abortion rights to receive Communion is a cause of scandal to the faithful, leading to confusion regarding the Church’s teaching and the need to be ”in communion” with the Church in order to receive the Eucharist.
Sacrilege: Allowing those who are obstinately persist in manifest grave sin to receive Communion compounds the evil, as St. Paul clearly teaches in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30. See also Catechism, no. 1385.
Salvation: Above all, the bishop is concerned about the eternal salavation of the politician and realizes that this seemingly harsh medicine is the best way to pastor some members of his flock.
But let’s be clear. There can be no question that those Catholic politicians who actively promote abortion are engaging in “manifest grave sin.” That’s an objective reality that wouldn’t vary from bishop to bishop. The discussion instead seems to surround the phrase “obstinately persist,” as all bishops are rightly interested in addressing such matters privately and in a less drastic way if at all possible. Surely a person is not being “obstinate” if he or she is never called to repent. Most bishops take such dialogue very seriously; others for various reasons don’t want to single out this issue for pastoral attention.
Surely the requirement that the Catholic politician must be obstinately persistent can neither be glossed over by zealous pro-life activists nor used as an excuse for inaction on the part of Church authorities.
I think Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City has struck the right balance in his pastoral dealing with pro-abortion Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius. Click here for a prior post on that subject.
I do hope that Speaker Pelosi’s bishop in California will have the courage and grace to address this situation with her–not as a matter of political expedience, but as a matter of pastoral necessity that transcends party lines.
As a postscript, a friend recently sent me this video regarding Senator Obama’s failure to protect the life of children who are already born. This alarming video is further evidence that we are moving beyond abortion to the area of infanticide.