Commentary: If Nancy Pelosi is denied Communion, why not William Barr?

Is abortion a bigger issue than the death penalty? By punishing one politician and celebrating the other, some Catholic leaders act like mere partisans.

(The New York Times) U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, and former U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone announced that he has barred House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving Communion in his archdiocese because of her support for abortion rights. Let’s put aside for a minute the fact that single-issue policing of the altar is pastoral malpractice and that denying the California Democrat the Eucharist will only further divide Catholic parishes and squander church leaders’ already gravely diminished credibility.

Playing Communion politics, furthermore, reveals the hypocritical partisanship among some vocal segments of the Catholic right. When former Attorney General William Barr, a Catholic who served in Trump’s Republican administration, played a key role in reviving the federal death penalty in 2019, there were no calls to deny him Communion. The Catholic Church teaches that executions are always morally unacceptable, with the catechism referring to the death penalty as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

For the church, in short, the state-sanctioned killing of a human being on death row is a “pro-life” issue.

But instead of calls to deny the then-attorney general Communion, Barr was honored with an award for his service to the church from the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, an event in Washington that featured an address from then-President Donald Trump. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Catholic, also touts his “pro-life” values while presiding over one of the world’s busiest death row chambers without fear of being denied Communion.

I’m not advocating that politicians whose agendas clash with Catholic teaching be barred from the grace of the Eucharist, a sacrament the church teaches is the “source and summit of the Christian life.” Deploying the Eucharist into political fights is wrong whether it’s directed at supporters of abortion rights or supporters of the death penalty.

But it is hypocritical of bishops to selectively dole out punishment, especially by withholding what we Catholics believe is the actual body of Christ. This hypocrisy undermines the church’s integrity and sends a message that the hierarchy is a mere political interest group.

In a letter to churchgoers in San Francisco, Cordileone said he is only protecting Pelosi from “the danger to her own soul,” while insisting that her public actions have caused “scandal” to the faithful. The real scandal is damage the archbishop is doing to the church and to those who find spiritual nourishment in a holy sacrament by doubling down on a culture-war strategy that his own pope has insisted is dangerous.

The archbishop’s decision shows brazen disregard for Pope Francis and other Vatican officials who have warned U.S. bishops not to weaponize a holy sacrament.

“I have never denied Communion to anyone,” Francis told reporters in September. He urged bishops to be “pastors” and warned that “if we look at the history of the church, we will see that every time the bishops have not dealt with a problem as pastors, they have taken sides politically.”

Francis, who opposes abortion but prioritizes dialogue, met with Pelosi last October at the Vatican. A few weeks later, the pope met with President Joe Biden, who also defends abortion rights. Both meetings sent a strong signal to the relatively small but vocal chorus of conservative U.S. bishops who want to deny Communion to “pro-choice” Catholic elected officials.

In case the message wasn’t clear enough, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, wrote a letter to the U.S. bishops’ conference president, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, last May warning that it would be “misleading” to give the impression that abortion is the only grave moral issue for the church.

Instead of publicly shaming Pelosi and further dividing the church at a time of intense national polarization, Cordileone could play a more pastoral role if he worked to bring people together, dialogued with the majority of Catholics who support abortion rights and followed the example of Pope Francis by seeking common ground.

(John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)