OWhen San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone announced last month that he was barring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving communion for her support of abortion rights, the move was widely seen as an escalation of the Catholic hierarchy’s campaign against pro-choice Catholic Democrats and Liberals.
The decision by Cordileone, a head of the culture warfare wing of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), deployed what has been called the sacramental “nuclear option” against the third-highest ranking official. of the federal government and the second most prominent Catholic after President Biden. Her decision also came as abortion opponents surge over signs that the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision could soon be reversed. At the same time, Biden and the Democrats are at an all-time low in the polls, with Republicans set to sweep Congress midterm. Abortion haters like Cordileone seek to capitalize on this momentum to enact state laws banning abortion.
But there is growing evidence that Cordileone may have misjudged the impact of his edict, not just in the sphere of secular politics, but inside the Catholic Church itself. In the weeks following Cordileone’s announcement – complete with a major media push and a marketing campaign to enlist allies – less than two dozen of the more than 270 active Catholic bishops in the United States have signaled support for his edict.
A week after the move from Cordileone, Pope Francis appointed 21 new cardinals, 16 of whom will have the powerful role of voting for a pope whenever there is a conclave. The only American among this group was the Bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy. McElroy comes from a lower-ranking diocese in the state of Cordileone and could be seen as the polar opposite of Cordileone in his approach to ministry.
The Cardinal-designate of San Diego has long pushed for civility and engagement in public policy debates. He also said that calling abortion a “preeminent priority” for Catholics in America, as advised by the American hierarchy, is “a distortion of Catholic teaching” because it isolates a problem to the exclusion of others equally critical. “The Eucharist is being weaponized and deployed as a tool of political warfare. This must not happen,” McElroy wrote last year.
Cordileone, on the other hand, has been an opposite curator since being appointed to San Francisco by former Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. Departing from the understated style of his predecessors, Cordileone has used the cultural life of the one of America’s most liberal cities as a foil for its conservative outbursts against gay rights, abortion and other issues. He has been no less confrontational when it comes to Francis, who was elected pope in 2013. Cordileone has repeatedly questioned Francis’ efforts for a more open and consultative Catholicism. In 2018, when a right-wing Italian archbishop named Carlo Maria Viganò issued a manifesto stating that Francis had ignored his warnings about abuse by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and should step down, Cordileone quickly and publicly vouched for the integrity of Viganò. Although the manifesto is full of misrepresentations and groundless accusations, Cordileone never expressed regret for his support of Viganò.
Nothing illustrates the difference between Francis and Cordileone better than the fact that Cordileone Cathedral used automated water sprinklers to keep the homeless away from the church while Pope Francis had showers built for the homeless. under the colonnade in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.
More recently, Cordileone has defied the pontiff’s directives on everything from vaccinating against Covid-19 to limiting the use of the ancient Latin Rite Mass, which has become fertile ground for right-wing Catholics who oppose the Pope. This summer, Cordileone is to host a traditionalist liturgical conference in San Francisco that will include a starring role for a Latin Mass scholar, Dom Alcuin Reid, who was illegally ordained a secret service priest in Europe last month.
Cordileone was a key instigator last year for the USCCB to adopt a national policy that would have declared Biden, only the second Catholic in history to hold the nation’s highest office, unfit to receive communion. . Francis has repeatedly said he does not want the bishops to approach the issue this way and he has asked his top doctrinal official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, to send a letter asking the bishops to take a step back. Cordileone and his allies insisted on moving forward, and the divided hierarchy finally agreed on a toothless compromise statement.
McElroy’s nomination as cardinal was certainly in the works long before Cordileone’s announcement about Pelosi’s communion ban, but the timing and tenor of the pope’s announcement couldn’t have been sharper. “This is a loud and clear message for the Church in the United States” tweeted Fr. Antonio Spadaroan Italian Jesuit who is a close adviser to Francis.
Whether this message was received is an open question. Francis has been pope for less than a decade and has yet to appoint enough bishops to make up for the nearly four decades of conservative appointments by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Church insiders have estimated that perhaps a quarter of the American hierarchy is implacably opposed to Francis and his program – “just waiting for him to die,” as one senior prelate put it. Another quarter do not necessarily agree with Francis’ pontificate, but will not publicly oppose him.
By announcing his edict so publicly, Cordileone effectively threw down the gauntlet to his colleagues, challenging each of them to join him or be dismissed as a sacramental squish. Cordileone’s ruling technically only applies to Pelosi within the boundaries of his Archdiocese of San Francisco, where Pelosi resides; but some of her allies insist that other bishops must also ban Pelosi from communion if she approaches a church in their diocese.
“Now let every bishop follow the example of Archbishop Cordileone”, tweeted Texas Bishop Joseph Strickland, a conservative ally of Cordileone. Other Cordileone fans also fanned the flames, with many praising him as a “faithful shepherd” and “a bishop with a backbone” in stark contrast to these other vapid churchmen. “Either it is right to forbid Nancy Pelosi to take communion, in which case the other bishops should follow the Cordileone decree; or it is wrong, in which case other bishops should protest,” said Phil Lawler, a longtime conservative commentator. “It can’t just be a matter of local politics.”
Essentially, the Archbishop of San Francisco set the standard for what it means to be a faithful Catholic bishop and a faithful Catholic politician. To be pro-life is now to be pro-Cordileone. Anything less makes you unworthy to receive communion.
If the battles against abortion move from the federal level to the state house level in a post-deer world, then bishops around the world may come under pressure from the Catholic right to ban local elected officials who support abortion rights. Few bishops would like this eternal war, but it seems inevitable. After Colorado sought to pass a bill ensuring abortion rights should deer be overthrown, the bishops of that state – which is a place of conservative Catholic opposition to Francis – have asked all Catholic politicians who supported the bill to refrain from receiving Communion because their action “facilitates the murder of unborn innocents”. Interestingly, three of those four Colorado bishops have also said it’s unethical to use Covid vaccines because they’re derived from fetal cell lines — an argument the Vatican has declared unfounded.
However, the silence of the vast majority of bishops is a sign that Cordileone may have overstepped the mark. At least one of his colleagues has spoken publicly. Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque – who worked under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the Vatican’s doctrinal office in the 1990s – issued a clear rejoinder to Cordileone in a statement noting that the shooting massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde show that the gun control is a “matter of life”. as well as capital punishment, global warming, universal health insurance and adequate housing. Politicians who oppose church teaching on these issues should also be denied communion if a pastor denies communion to a public figure over abortion rights, he said. “Better, I think, to put the Eucharist into the hands of such Catholics in the hope that some day soon they would put their hands to work in the name of life, for the defense of all life.”
Whether this episode marks a tipping point toward Francis’ approach and away from the longstanding culture war stance of the American hierarchy remains unclear. Abortion rights will be just one of many forces at work in the midterm elections in November. But it’s another election a week later that will provide a better clue as to where the bishops actually stand. That’s when the American hierarchy will meet for its annual business meeting in Baltimore to choose a new slate of leaders to guide the conference for the next three years. Church watchers also have their eye on another looming vote: the possibility of a conclave to elect a new pope, a scenario that is gaining increasing attention as 85-year-old Francis is slowed down by ailments and age.
With his action banning Pelosi from communion, Archbishop Cordileone may have added another twist to an already charged American political drama. But its main success may have been in highlighting the stakes of an even bigger ballot – one in which McElroy appears to have a vote and Cordileone does not.
David Gibson, a journalist and author who writes about religion, is the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.