ROME – To no one’s real surprise, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi received communion during a papal Mass yesterday marking the traditional feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Pelosi, her husband Paul, and other family members happened to be in Rome on vacation and decided to attend the Mass.
The act of receiving communion, first reported by Crux, came after a meeting between Pope Francis and Pelosi earlier in the morning in which Pelosi reportedly received a papal blessing.
To be clear, Pelosi did not receive communion directly from Pope Francis, who did not preside over the liturgy due to his ongoing knee issues, but rather restricted himself to delivering the homily. Instead, like everyone else, Pelosi took communion from an unidentified priest assisting at the Mass, who very well may not even have known who she was.
Nevertheless, the fact that Pelosi received communion at a papal liturgy will doubtless be seen as an indirect rebuke of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who recently banned Pelosi from communion in the archdiocese over her support for abortion rights. Of course, Cordileone’s edict applies only to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and does not dictate policy in the Vatican itself.
The contrast between “banned in San Fran” yet “welcome in Rome” is destined to mark another twist in the ongoing tensions in the United States, and between the U.S. and Rome, over how the Catholic Church should respond to members of its own flock in positions of political leadership who defy church teaching, which is especially keen in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
Three observations suggest themselves.
First, whatever one makes of Pelosi getting communion on Wednesday, it’s hardly unprecedented.
For instance, during the Great Jubilee year of 2000 presided over by Pope John Paul II, the mayor of Rome was a center-left practicing Catholic named Francesco Rutelli. He took the standard Catholic Democrat line, which was personal opposition to abortion but unwillingness to criminalize it. Rutelli attended virtually all of the important papal Masses during the Jubilee and always received communion, sometimes from the hands of John Paul II himself.
Second, there is a longstanding contrast between European and American Catholic sensibilities when it comes to the abortion issue. To put it simply, in America abortion remains a “live issue,” one over which both the general population and the political class remain bitterly divided.
In Europe, on the other hand, the legalization of abortion was decided democratically long ago, and it’s now considered largely a settled question. Italy, for instance, legalized abortion in 1978 and went through a tumultuous popular referendum on the subject in 1981, which ended by upholding the new law. Since then, the motto of Italian politics has been that the abortion law non si tocca, meaning “it’s not to be touched,” because it’s perceived as representing a social consensus. That position, more or less, is shared by both left and right.
Were Italian bishops to begin denying communion to every political leader unwilling to challenge that consensus, it’s hard to know where it might stop. So far there’s little indication that the U.S. Supreme Court decision, which has energized the pro-life movement in the States, has significantly affected the European political landscape.
Third, it’s clear that Pope Francis and the figures who make up his leadership team are conceptually opposed to the idea of deploying the Eucharist as a weapon in what they perceive to be essentially political causes.
Prior to a vote by the U.S. bishops last May to move forward on a document on the Eucharist, in which some felt the bishops might adopt language hostile to giving communion to politicians such as Pelosi and US President Joe Biden, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dispatched a letter warning that such a policy could become “a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United States.”
Pope Francis himself has said that he’s never denied communion to anyone, during one of his airborne news conferences later in 2021. The clear thrust of messaging coming from the Vatican under Francis is against communion bans, an impression reinforced by the bishops and cardinals Francis has elevated in the United States, all of whom take a more moderate position on the issue than Cordileone.
What’s important to note now is that today’s apparent rift between Vatican practice and the Archdiocese of San Francisco is hardly the last time this issue is likely to emerge. The net effect of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision is to remove the abortion debate from the judicial sphere and place it squarely in the political, especially at the state and local level.
As a result, American bishops who heretofore have been able to sit out the communion ban question will now be pressured to make decisions about Catholic governors, state legislators, potentially even mayors and city council members.
In theory, Pope Francis could make things simpler by issuing a decree one way or the other – either pro-choice Catholic politicians should, or should not, be denied communion. Yet he’s shown no appetite to do so, insisting that such decisions have to be made by local pastors.
As a result, the short-term prognosis probably is for heartache ahead. The one fixed point is that, should other American bishops opt to take the same stand as Cordileone with their own local political class, they probably shouldn’t expect explicit Vatican support for doing so.