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OPINION | TERRY MATTINGLY: U.S. bishops, 3 popes and the soul of Nancy Pelosi

by TERRY MATTINGLY | May 28, 2022 at 3:12 a.m.

After fierce, closed-door debates about President Joe Biden and Holy Communion, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops managed to release a muted document last fall that did little to please activists on either side of the church's wars about abortion and politicians in pews.

But one passage in "The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church" turned into a ticking clock in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, setting the stage for the current clash between Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone and a member of his flock -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"It is the special responsibility of the diocesan bishop to work to remedy situations that involve public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law," noted the passage. "Indeed, he must guard the integrity of the sacrament, the visible communion of the Church, and the salvation of souls."

Cordileone's diocese includes the 12th Congressional District of California. After six private attempts to reach Pelosi, he released a May 20 statement telling her that "you are not to present yourself for Holy Communion and, should you do so, you are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, until such time as you publicly repudiate your advocacy for the legitimacy of abortion and confess and receive absolution of this grave sin in the sacrament of penance."

The archbishop built his case with quotes from Pope Francis, Pope St. John Paul II and the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI, as well as canon law stating that Catholics who "obstinately persist in manifest grave sin" are "not to be admitted to Holy Communion."

The speaker's words and actions, he added, suggest she isn't worrying about papal authority. Pelosi, the mother of five children, recently told The Seattle Times that the "personal nature of this is so appalling, and I say that as a devout Catholic. They say to me, 'Nancy Pelosi thinks she knows more about having babies than the pope.' Yes, I do. Are you stupid?"

While the news has been dominated by signs that the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade, these ongoing debates among Catholics are rooted in years of disagreements about the words and actions of recent popes.

Writing to his flock, Cordileone noted that in 2004 the leader of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told U.S. bishops that when a Catholic politician champions laws promoting abortion "his Pastor should meet with him, ... informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist."

That advice came from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. But the committee chair that received this letter -- the now disgraced Theodore McCarrick -- claimed that Ratzinger backed compromise, saying local bishops should rule on these matters. Bishops have been arguing about this "McCarrick doctrine" ever since.

As for Pope Francis, Cordileone said he "has been one of the world's most vocal advocates of human dignity in every stage and condition of life. He decries what he evocatively calls the 'throwaway culture.' There can be no more extreme example of this cultural depravity than when direct attacks on human life are enshrined in a nation's law."

Early in his papacy, Francis noted, "Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who even before he was born, and then just after birth, experienced the world's rejection."

Cordileone critics note the pope met and prayed privately with Biden for 75 minutes last fall. Afterward, the president said: "We just talked about the fact that he was happy I was a good Catholic." Biden claimed that Francis urged him to "keep receiving communion."

In yet another discussion of these conflicts, during an in-flight presser, Francis stressed: "I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone. No one." However, he also said it's possible for a Catholic to become separated from the church and, thus, is "not able to take Communion because he is outside of the community. This is not a penalty: You are outside. Communion is to unite the community."

This is a "pastoral problem," said Francis, and "we bishops manage this principle pastorally."

Terry Mattingly leads and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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