House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco may not realize it, but she is blessed to have a true pastor of souls as her bishop. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s love for her as a member of his flock prompted him to tell her something she does not want to hear, namely that she will not be allowed to receive Holy Communion in her home diocese until she has repented of her gravely sinful promotion of the killing of unborn children by abortion.
The duty of a bishop is not to humor a member of his flock, such as Mrs. Pelosi, who claims that her promotion of abortion is not in contradiction to her obligations as a follower of Christ in the Catholic Church. His duty is to lead his flock in the path of truth and virtue, which at times means rebuking someone who contradicts Christ’s truth in a matter of great importance. This episcopal duty is not simply a matter of exhorting someone to abandon wrongful ways. In the case of Speaker Pelosi such exhortations by Archbishop Cordileone have been frequent, and completely ignored.
Canon 915 requires a bishop to safeguard the sanctity of the Holy Eucharist, to prevent scandal being given to the faithful, and to promote the eternal welfare of the soul of one “who obstinately persist[s] in manifest grave sin” by not admitting that person to the reception of Holy Communion. This rebuke is designed to shake the offending person out of the mistaken conviction that his behavior is not only not sinful, but rather somehow virtuous, and therefore pleasing to God. Pro-abortion Catholics such as Mrs. Pelosi constantly claim that abortion is good and not evil and that, as such, women have a fundamental right to abortion that may not be justly taken from them.
The Catholic Church teaches that nothing could be farther from the truth.
The authority granted to bishops in canon 915 is a holy and legitimate use of coercive power. Coercion in the Church is used by the shepherds to protect the flock from sin and error. The bishop’s staff has a crook on the top, designed to allow him to grab a wandering sheep around the neck and pull it to safety. It also has a pointed end at the bottom to allow him to ward off attacking wolves, but also to prod recalcitrant sheep to move in the right direction.
It would be nice if the sheep always obeyed the voice of the shepherd and followed his direction on the Church’s pilgrimage through this world towards the next. But sadly, the sheep do not always follow the lead of the shepherd who insistently calls back those who stubbornly wander off. Such obstinacy in refusing to be led into the ways of truth and holiness poses a direct threat to them and to other sheep who might follow them and not the true shepherd.
In such cases, the only charitable thing for the shepherd to do is to use his God-given authority to impress upon the wandering sheep that Christian love does not equal tolerance of error and grave immorality. The shock of being told that she will not be given Holy Communion in her home archdiocese is salutary for Mrs. Pelosi. If heeded, it will be life-changing for the better.
A strange temptation of our times is to view Catholicism not as a revealed religion that makes demands upon those who believe in it, but rather as an individual experience of what matters most to a person, with no necessary connection to what any Church authority might say or do. In this scenario, bishops and priests are there to fulfill a largely decorative role in the lives of the faithful. But each Catholic gets to decide what he or she will believe in.
The courageous action taken by Archbishop Cordileone is a much-needed rebuke of this individualistic deformation of what it means to be a Catholic. No one gets to re-write the Bible or the moral law. No one gets to use his or her position of authority and influence in society to teach the false lesson that abortion and other sinful practices are good and do not offend God. No one gets to reject publicly and obstinately the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Church that abortion is gravely immoral without placing his or her soul in grave danger of eternal perdition.
The denial of Holy Communion to Speaker Pelosi is a warning to her and to everyone who agrees with her that the discomfort occasioned by such a serious measure is a mere foretaste of the eternal discomfort that awaits those who freely and knowingly reject the commandment of God not to kill innocent human life. Archbishop Cordileone knows that she will be annoyed and upset by his action. He knows that he has finally gotten her attention after years of her ignoring his warnings about her vehement public support of the intrinsically evil practice of abortion.
She stands at a crossroads, and it behooves her to stop and reflect on what is happening. Her shepherd is trying to free her from the grip of an erroneous conscience. Her shepherd is doing nothing less than what we should all want our shepherds to do, that is, teach the truth of Christ and guard the flock from error and vice. We must pray that she comes to understand that Archbishop Cordileone loves her and, by his prohibition, is trying to lead her away from the abyss of sin and death.
*Image: The Last Judgment by Jan van Eyck, c. 1440-41 [The MET, New York]. This is the right panel of a diptych with The Crucifixion.
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