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Pelosi’s archbishop says prominent Catholics who support abortion rights should be denied Communion

President Biden hands a copy of his joint address speech to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in April. Some Catholic leaders have said Biden and Pelosi should be barred from Communion because of their support for abortion rights. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The Most Rev. Salvatore J. Cordileone was careful not to name any Catholics in his latest letter calling for Holy Communion to be withheld from public figures who support abortion rights.

But the 17-page missive from the archbishop of San Francisco may have important implications for one of the archdiocese’s most famous parishioners: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi, a California Democrat and high-profile Catholic, has long supported women’s right to access abortion care — and, for nearly as long, she has come under fire from those who say her views contradict the teachings of the church, which considers abortion a grave sin.

Even though Cordileone, among the country’s most conservative Catholic leaders, did not mention Pelosi by name, his letter implies that figures like her should be denied Communion, the holiest of the religion’s sacraments. If an “erring Catholic” continues supporting abortion rights, even after conversations with church officials, a pastor’s “only recourse” is to temporarily exclude them from the sacrament, Cordileone wrote.

“This is a bitter medicine, but the gravity of the evil of abortion can sometimes warrant it,” he added.

Cordileone’s letter is the latest entry in an evolving debate about how Catholic leaders should handle Catholic politicians whose stances — particularly on abortion — do not jibe with the church’s doctrine. The controversy has only intensified since the election of the nation’s second Catholic president, who some say should also be denied Communion.

The archbishop acknowledged the polarizing political dynamic, writing in an addendum that he intentionally waited to publish his thoughts until after the 2020 election year to avoid “confusion among those who would misperceive this as ‘politicizing’ the issue.”

“Regardless of which political party is in power at a given moment, we all need to review some basic truths and moral principles,” Cordileone wrote.

Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment. When asked whether Pelosi specifically should be barred from Communion, Cordileone declined to say, but told The Washington Post that “every Catholic who favors or condones abortion is formally cooperating in a very grave evil and should not present themselves for Communion.”

“I did not direct the letter at any one person because sadly this principle applies to many Catholics in public life,” Cordileone wrote in an email response after this article’s publication. He said he has not had any conversations with priests in the archdiocese about excluding Pelosi from Communion.

Biden’s abortion rights stance triggers coming debate among Catholic bishops on Communion

The letter — titled “Before I Formed You in the Womb I Knew You” and released Saturday — comes in the run-up to a June gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), where church leaders will vote on whether to draft a document on the Communion issue.

There have been conflicting reports about the specific subject of the document, and a spokeswoman for the group declined to discuss its potential contents, telling The Post last week that it was still premature.

The USCCB is influential, but it has no authority over bishops; only the Vatican does. Canon law puts Catholics under the direction of their local bishop, and they — along with individual priests — have varying policies about how to deal with politicians who support abortion rights. As with Pelosi, some have called on priests to deny Communion to President Biden, who attends Mass regularly. Both received Communion at the installation Mass for Pope Francis in 2013, and Pelosi received it five years before at a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI, each time occasioning consternation among some Catholics.

On the campaign trail in 2019, Biden was reportedly prevented from receiving the Eucharist at a South Carolina church because of his stance on abortion. Catholic leaders in both D.C. and Delaware have long said they will not deny the president Communion.

In January, Pelosi appeared on Hillary Clinton’s podcast and criticized antiabortion supporters of former president Donald Trump for being “willing to sell the whole democracy down the river for that one issue.” It gives her “great grief as a Catholic,” she added.

Those statements earned a direct response from Cordileone, who said “Nancy Pelosi does not speak for the Catholic Church” and “she also speaks in direct contradiction to a fundamental human right that Catholic teaching has consistently championed for 2,000 years.”

In 2013, Cardinal Raymond Burke, then head of the Vatican’s highest court, used similar language in issuing a pointed public rebuke of Pelosi. She should be denied Communion, Burke said, because she “persists in a grave sin — cooperating with the crime of procured abortion — and still professes to be a devout Catholic.”

Pelosi and Biden are far from the only politicians to receive such reprimands.

These lawmakers supported abortion rights. A bishop barred them from Communion.

During then-Sen. John F. Kerry’s 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Burke, then the archbishop of St. Louis, forbade the Catholic candidate from taking Communion while campaigning in the area. Former congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and others have all faced similar fates or threats for their stances on abortion.

In response to a directive from the Diocese of Springfield barring top Illinois state lawmakers from Communion, the Rev. Stan Chu Ilo, a Catholic studies professor at DePaul University, said such measures were “ill-advised” and “unhelpful.”

“Contemporary Catholicism has long left behind the era when church officials used draconian and punitive measures and threats of hellfire to compel the minds and hearts of Catholics,” he wrote in the Chicago Tribune.

In his letter on Saturday, Cordileone argued that allowing people who publicly advocate for abortion rights to continue receiving Communion could influence others “to do evil” and could create the perception that the church’s views on abortion are not deeply held.

“Our responsibility to the rest of the Catholic community is to assure them that the Church of Jesus Christ does take most seriously her mission to care for ‘the least of these,’ as Our Lord has commanded us, and to correct Catholics who erroneously, and sometimes stubbornly, promote abortion,” Cordileone wrote.

Pelosi has in the past acknowledged rifts with the Catholic Church, particularly on abortion and stem cell research. In a 2008 interview, she said her faith has had a profound effect on her life and her worldview.

“It informs my decision-making, my value system and my sense of responsibility to the community,” Pelosi told C-SPAN. “And it is a joy in my life.”

The interviewer, Brian Lamb, asked Pelosi about her support of abortion access and receiving Communion.

“Does the church give you any difficulties?” he asked.

“Not really,” Pelosi replied. “But I think some of it is regional. It depends on the bishop in a certain region. Fortunately, for me it has not — 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.”

Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.