On May 1st, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco issued his pastoral letter “Before I Formed You in the Womb—I Knew You”. It is an exhaustive and unprecedented tome laying out nearly every argument why Catholics in public life who advocate legalized abortion should be denied Holy Communion.
Four days later, an essay in America by Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego presented reasons why such Catholics should not be denied the Eucharist. Not only are these two bishops in California on opposite ends of their state, they could not be much further apart in terms of ecclesial and sacramental principles on the worthiness to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood. Their clash of viewpoints is a preview of fireworks that may be set off at the bishops’ June assembly, if the issue that divides them even comes up for discussion after all.
McElroy opposes the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ teaching that “abortion remains our preeminent priority” as found in its document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. At the November 2019 annual Fall bishops’ assembly McElroy stood up and clearly voiced his objection: “It is not Catholic that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world in Catholic social teaching. It is not.”
Here I offer a systematic rebuttal of the arguments Bishop McElroy presents in his recent attempt to urge the bishops to back away from a proposal to deny Holy Communion to those who, as he even admits, “clearly depart from the teaching of the Church on an extremely grave moral issue.”
To McElroy’s credit he characterized abortion as “a pivotal moral issue” and laments that with the election of Biden and a Democratic Congress we cannot expect progress in defense of the unborn at the federal level. Though his America piece reflects a poor—and one could even say a revisionist Eucharistic theology—McElroy is right that this debate on whether or not to refuse the Eucharist to pro-abortion Catholic public figures is not about abortion per se, but about the meaning of the Eucharist itself.
Early in his essay McElroy cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Art. 1325: “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being. It is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.” He also quotes article 1323 that characterizes the Eucharist as the “sacrament of love, the bond of unity, the sign of charity.” He accuses those who would exclude certain Catholic politicians from receiving the Sacrament of using what is “sacred in nature” as an instrument “for a political end,” stating: “The Eucharist is being weaponized and deployed as a tool in political warfare.”
The question needs to be asked: what is the “political end” and what is the “political warfare” served by denying Holy Communion to Catholic pro-abortion politicians? The employment of such military jargon can only mean that McElroy accuses those who advocate denying pro-abortion Catholic politicians reception of the Eucharist of partisan politics—as if those advocates were “weaponizing” the Eucharist simply to discredit the Democratic Party in favor of the Republican Party. What other political end could McElroy have in mind?
This is hardly the goal of bishops such as Cordileone. Indeed, the concern is precisely what McElroy himself quotes in the Catechism. It is about Eucharistic integrity and the very essence of worship. It is not about politics. When someone facilitates abortion, as does President Biden, that person acts contrary to the very meaning of “communion in the divine life,” the “unity of the people of God,” “the worship men offer to Christ,” the Eucharist as “sign of unity” and “bond of charity.” Though Biden may be receiving the Sacrament, he does so in contradiction to its meaning. And as Cordileone stated in his pastoral letter: “To publicly affirm the Catholic faith while at the same time rejecting one of its most fundamental teachings is simply dishonest.”
McElroy described Biden’s failure to embrace the whole of Catholic teaching, which he agrees is a pre-requisite for worthy reception, as a mere rejection of “the moral obligation to seek laws protecting the unborn.” Here is one of the McElroy’s greatest errors. He completely misrepresents the actual evil caused by President Biden. The objective evil is not simply that Biden does not support laws to end abortion. Nor is the evil not simply that Biden doesn’t agree with Catholic teaching that the civil ruler has an obligation to protect life. Rather, Biden actively facilitates the extermination of an entire class of people. He supports legalized abortion for the full nine months of pregnancy and has personally initiated public policies that expand the killing of innocent persons—all contrary to the faith he claims to profess!
These are not sins of omission—as bad as those are—but sins of commission, for which he is morally responsible. What he does is such a grievous violation of love of neighbor, his reception of Holy Communion actually contradicts the meaning of the Sacrament in which he seeks to participate. One cannot murder the innocent and honor the Lord’s Supper as “sign of unity” and “bond of charity.” As I have said before—the incongruity is staggering!
Furthermore, since McElroy believes denying the Eucharist to pro-abortion Catholic politicians “weaponizes” the Sacrament, Catholic politicians, by the mere fact that they are politicians, are effectively shielded from ecclesial discipline. McElroy has created an exemption for them, since to deny politicians the Eucharist is to desecrate what is sacred for “politic ends.” But, as we shall see, McElroy’s Eucharistic theology ultimately creates an exemption for everyone.
Worthiness and discipline
McElroy provides an analysis of what he calls a “traditional theology of Eucharistic worthiness” based on three points rooted in the teaching of St. Paul: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the Body and Blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11: 26). According to McElroy, the Pauline doctrine simultaneously contains three elements: 1) exhortation 2) recognition of human weakness and 3) discipline. As an exhortation, all who approach the altar are called to “conform their lives more fully to the person of Christ.” The second element means that all are sinners, yet “the grace and mercy of God abounds.” And three, Catholics conscious of grave sin should go to Confession and receive forgiveness “before receiving the Eucharist.”
McElroy accuses proponents of a national policy of Eucharistic exclusion of deemphasizing the first two elements of so-called “traditional theology” in favor of the third. McElroy, however, characterizes the teaching of Paul as a mere exhortation when indeed it is much more. Paul actually describes the grave offense given to Christ Himself when His Body and Blood are received unworthily. The Pauline teaching is the basis upon which ecclesial discipline rests in protecting Eucharistic integrity and coherency. Furthermore, completely absent from McElroy’s third point is any formal ecclesial discipline. Discipline is completely private as those who go to Confession are privately motivated to do so.
Would that the Bidens and Pelosis would avail themselves of this sacrament, confess their advocacy of abortion and be reformed. But first they would have to recognize that such advocacy is a sin—which they do not. The proper discipline omitted by McElroy is articulated in The Code of Canon Law. Canon 915 which states: “Those … obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” would seem to apply in this case.
Here we come to the core of McElroy’s Eucharistic theology. He affirms that worthiness to receive Holy Communion “requires integral union with all the major teachings of the Catholic Faith.” He goes further and even states that to embrace Church teachings is a “moral obligation.” Yet, he argues that “failure in fulfilling that obligation in its fullness cannot be the measure of eucharistic worthiness in a Church of sinners.” Whatever is meant by “eucharistic worthiness” not only applies to Catholic politicians, but applies to “all Catholics.” Since most Catholics fail, in various ways, to embrace the whole of Church teaching, have their doubts, are “questioners” and “face intense pressures and complexities in their daily lives”, no one is really capable of “Eucharistic worthiness.”
So, we may conclude from McElroy’s spiritual doctrine, either everyone should be excluded from the Eucharist, or based on this egalitarian notion of unworthiness, no one can be excluded. This egalitarian notion of universal sinfulness fails to recognize that there are variable qualities of evils committed by sinners and variable contexts in which personal sinfulness occurs and thus various levels of culpability. It is one thing for a Catholic to privately disagree with Church teaching on such an important doctrine as the inviolability of innocent human life, and hopefully wrestle with that disagreement—and quite another to publicly support the killing of the innocent and actually cause such killing to occur.
At the minimum, McElroy’s spiritual doctrine ignores such distinctions by which a bishop may, in doing his duty, make a judgment that Catholic politicians who facilitate the killing of the unborn should be denied Holy Communion. Cordileone, however, acknowledges that there are kinds and degrees of cooperation in evil. He states:
Most of the time this is a private matter. There are, however, circumstances in which such is not the case, occasions when those in public life violate the boundaries of justifiable cooperation. In the case of public figures who profess to be Catholic and promote abortion, we are not dealing with a sin committed in human weakness or a moral lapse: this is a matter of persistent, obdurate, and public rejection of Catholic teaching. This adds an even greater responsibility to the role of the Church’s pastors in caring for the salvation of souls.
McElroy also faults the proponents of Eucharistic exclusion for being selectively focused on the evil of abortion and asks: “Why hasn’t racism been included in the call for eucharistic sanctions against political leaders?” Here McElroy has introduced a straw man. Show me the Catholic political leader who advocates and facilitates active discrimination against minorities and that Catholic too should be excommunicated—discipline McElroy may well endorse! And indeed, as Cordileone noted in his pastoral, Catholics guilty of racism has been one of the few sins that, in the history of American Catholicism, resulted in actual formal excommunications of those who committed that sin.
Racism is a true evil and continues to exist today—undoubtedly, even among Catholics. While recognizing other grave forms of oppression, right now there is only one people-group legally declared non-persons who may be put to death with the sanction of law, are slaughtered at the rate of 2,500 per day in the United States—who lives are reduced to the level of so much trash—namely, completely helpless unborn children. The problem of the evil of abortion, even among Catholics, is that it is often treated as a mere idea, an abstract concept, the inviolability of innocent human life simply a doctrine that Catholics such as Biden simply fail to accept. Our moral imaginations fail to grasp that abortion actually kills people! And they are killed in acts of horrendous violence.
The great pro-life leader Joseph Scheidler, who died earlier this year, once told me that upon the birth of his first daughter, watching the miracle of life emerge from the womb, he came to know that abortion is the closest thing to killing God. If there is any truth to this spiritual insight—then surely we can see why reception of Holy Communion by those who cause such killing is a complete spiritual contradiction. For the sake of their own spiritual integrity the bishops must, at the very least, admonish pro-abortion Catholic politicians to not present themselves for reception of Christ’s Body and Blood—that Body once conceived and dwelt in the womb of Mary.
The bishops need to act
The bishops have been set to discuss and vote on a proposal that Catholic public figures who support and facilitate abortion be excluded from receiving the Eucharist—this discussion and vote to occur at their June assembly. However, Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria, Vatican Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent a letter dated May 7th to Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the USCCB. Due to this letter, Bishop McElroy may get his wish that the above proposal will fail—or at least be seriously postponed. Ladaria noted the potential for divisions such a proposal may cause and “advised that dialogue be undertaken to preserve unity … in the face of disagreements over this controversial topic.” Ladaria highlighted the potential for “discord” and any proposal needed to “express a true consensus of the bishops on this matter.”
Furthermore, the conference would need to “respect the rights of individual ordinaries in their own dioceses and the prerogatives of the Holy See.” What might Ladaria mean by “true consensus?” If the words mean “complete” consensus, such agreement will certainly not happen. Already Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, tried to spin Ladaria’s letter to her own advantage. Pelosi, who also happens to reside in Cordileone’s diocese, stated in a May 13 news conference: “I’m pleased with what the Vatican put out on that subject … it basically said don’t be divisive on the subject.” CWR’s Carl E. Olson provides an analysis of how Ladaria’s letter is actually small comfort for pro-abortion Catholics like Pelosi. Nonetheless, is it possible that McElroy and other bishops who share his view can exploit the lack of such consensus to derail the success of the bishops’ proposal to finally sanction Catholic politicians who promote abortion?
Ladaria stated that whatever the bishops propose, they must avoid the impression that abortion, as well as euthanasia, “alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest accountability on the part of Catholics.” This too, could perhaps be exploited by bishops who oppose Eucharistic exclusion. In any case, it is fair to say that the Ladaria letter at least potentially burdens the process by which a favorable decision can be made by the bishops to even simply exhort Catholics like Biden not to present himself for Communion.
McElroy is correct that many both within and outside the Church will see any formal sanctioning of pro-abortion Catholic politicians as politically motivated as “to limit the impact of exclusion to the Democratic Party.” However, the Church’s need to discipline cannot be held up by a kind of blackmail—by the expected negative fall-out that is sure to follow. Frankly, this negative reaction can be mitigated to a certain extent by the bishops accompanying the discipline with clear and sound catechesis widely disseminated in various ways. The bishops, as successors of the apostles are commission by their crucified Lord to preach the gospel in season and out. That preaching may require the exercise of discipline. And that moment is now.
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