Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Headlines were made last Friday when Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco imposed a sacramental discipline on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, stating that, due to her decades-long public support for abortion and after repeated attempts to engage in dialogue about her misapplication of Catholic teaching, she is not to be admitted to Holy Communion, pursuant to Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law. His decision is courageous and helps to teach important things about our communion in the Eucharist and in the Church that are often misunderstood.
Following the Ascension of the Lord, the Apostles entered into a time of prayer and reflection, preparing for the day when the Holy Spirit would come to them. They knew already what their mission was: to preach the Gospel to all nations, to baptize, to forgive sins, and to celebrate the memorial of the Lord’s Paschal sacrifice. It is the Holy Spirit poured out upon the Apostles at Pentecost that guides them to understand how that mission will be carried out. The Second Vatican Council explains that, “Guiding the Church in the way of all truth and unifying her in communion and in the works of ministry, he bestows upon her varied hierarchic and charismatic gifts, and in this way directs her” (Lumen Gentium 4). Our faith teaches us that the Holy Spirit guides and sanctifies the Catholic Church so that the Gospel can be authentically transmitted through the ages, and believers can have the assurance of divine assistance through the sacraments and ministry of the Church.
The Holy Spirit guides the Church through the successors of the Apostles, the bishops. “In that way, then, with priests and deacons as helpers, the bishops received the charge of the community, presiding in God’s stead over the flock of which they are the shepherds in that they are teachers of doctrine, ministers of sacred worship, and holders of office in government…the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ.” (Lumen Gentium 20). Real authority has been given by God to those who hold the office of bishop. That office calls upon them to teach the faith coherently, to govern the community entrusted to their care, and to help that community to grow in holiness. The bishops are authentic teachers of the Catholic faith both by office and by virtue of the theological training they received before becoming priests. When they teach the Catholic faith, their teaching is authoritative, and when they make decisions regarding the governance of the Church and the discipline of the sacraments, they do so with the authority given them by the Holy Spirit. When we correctly understand what the Church is, and how the Holy Spirit is operative in the Church, and especially when we understand that the Holy Spirit gives real authority on earth to the bishops, we can further understand that it is the role of bishops to teach the faith clearly. The bishops have responsibility for discerning whether something is an authentic reflection of Catholic faith, and if someone is accurately teaching the Catholic faith. In the case of a Catholic politician who rejects the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life and who publicly advocates in favor of a grave moral evil, namely abortion, it is the responsibility of that person’s local bishop to engage in pastoral dialogue, offering charitable correction and clarification of what the Church teaches, while also calling them to repentance and to receive the Lord’s mercy.
The Church clearly teaches that the reception of Holy Communion is both a manifestation of faith in the Real Presence of Jesus, and an outward sign of sharing in the Church’s faith, a belonging to the Church community. Our “Amen” means “I believe!” – I believe that Jesus is truly present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity under the form of bread and wine, and that in Holy Communion Jesus unites Himself to me in an intimate sacrament of love. Our “Amen” is also an affirmation that we profess the Catholic faith and wish to be known as Catholics not only in private but also in public. The Church explains that only those who profess the Catholic faith are able to receive Communion, both because of what the Eucharist IS, and because of what the act of receiving indicates. The Church also teaches that there are certain reasons why a Catholic ought to refrain from receiving the Eucharist. First and foremost, if one has committed a grave sin, they should not receive Communion until they have first sought God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Confession: this is because of what the Eucharist is – we need to be spiritually prepared for communion with Jesus, and sin interferes with that spiritual union. If one has broken communion with the Catholic Church by publicly rejecting the Church’s teaching on faith or morals, they also should not receive the Eucharist: this is because of what reception of the Eucharist indicates – communion of faith with the whole Church throughout the world. When a Catholic politician publicly rejects the Church’s teaching on the dignity of human life in the womb and consistently promotes abortion in direct contradiction of the moral teachings of the Gospel, they are, to quote Canon 915 “obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin.” By their rejection of the Church’s teaching, they are also breaking communion with the Church in matters of faith and morals. For most of us, our sins are not “manifest,” that is, publicly known – thank God! But in the case of a public figure, public advocacy of abortion constitutes both a grave sin known to the public, and a public rejection of the Catholic faith. The act of receiving Communion is both personal and public. In most cases, the individual receiving is the only one who can know their personal, interior disposition when approaching the Eucharist. But when a sin is public, and when a public figure rejects the Church’s teachings and teaching authority, one’s interior disposition is reflected in external words and actions.
These are some of the foundational principles that are being overlooked by some critics of Archbishop Cordileone. But we ought to bear them in mind, especially as Pentecost draws closer. In these days, we are preparing for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, is always at work in the Church, and in a special way, is at work through the teaching authority of bishops. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit would make our bishops not only authentic teachers of the Gospel, but also authentic witnesses of the Gospel – we need saints who will courageously bring the faith to us, guide us along the path of righteousness and truth, and feed us with good spiritual food. And let us pray that the Holy Spirit would inspire in us the desire to follow our shepherds because they are authentic witnesses and teachers, because they present to us a reflection of the teaching, sanctifying, and guiding of Christ who is the Good Shepherd.