By Sam Keyes
When the news came that Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone had barred Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Holy Communion, I wondered how quickly Episcopal bishops would scramble over one another to declare their willingness to do the opposite. Somewhat to my (admittedly jaded) surprise, the public response has been prudently quiet, though within a day of Cordileone’s announcement, the Episcopal Bishop of California noted on his public Facebook page that Pelosi would be welcome to receive the sacrament at any Episcopal church. While it was cloaked in the usual cautious language against any charge of “sheep stealing,” it read much like a political endorsement.
I’m an ex-Anglican Roman Catholic, so I’m hardly a disinterested observer. I also recognize that the largely Anglican/Episcopalian readers of this blog may not be very invested in these internecine problems of sacramental discipline. But I want to suggest here that they should be, in one way or another, and that this isn’t merely a “conservative” or “progressive” thing as much as it is a “Church” thing.
One might wonder if many of those who decry the archbishop’s move as “political” apply the same standard to their own community boundaries. Several times now I’ve seen variations on a meme asserting that, on the one hand, “I can accept that people have different opinions than I do,” but on the other hand “I cannot accept people holding beliefs that deny people human rights.” Sometimes the sentiment is expressed as “You can believe whatever you want, but you’re not allowed to enact policies reflecting those beliefs.”
Of course, the trouble is that these boundaries are not self-enforcing or self-evident. The things in dispute (abortion and sexuality, to name just two) are precisely beliefs and questions of human rights and human nature; arguing that this or that item is “religious” vs. “political” is counterproductive at best, manipulative at worst. Progressive Episcopalians who hold to revised definitions of sacraments do not believe that these revisions are “political.” They simply reflect reality. It is amusing for anyone in a church which has spent the last several decades trying to solve its problems through lawsuits and disciplinary action against traditionalists to insist that no one should be disciplined for their beliefs. That is simply a self-defeating approach to any healthy form of institutional life.
Imagine this hypothetical situation: As the rector of an Episcopal parish, I declare that anyone in a same-sex union will be barred from Holy Communion due to their persistence in manifest, grave sin. Someone writes to the bishop, who calls me and insists that I revise this policy immediately because it does not reflect the teaching of the Episcopal Church. I tell her that conscience does not allow me to do this, and I refuse to arrange a meeting to discuss things. Can we really imagine, even in a more conservative diocese, that such a situation would be allowed to stand, that no disciplinary proceedings whatsoever would happen?
It wasn’t all that long ago that various clergy of the Episcopal Church had ongoing conversation about whether or not Donald Trump should be refused Holy Communion. Bishop Love of Albany was forced to step down from his ministry for simply following his conscience on the nature of marriage. Imagine if an Episcopal lay person in public office started giving speeches on the floor of the Senate saying, “My Episcopal faith is very important to me! It is thanks to this faith, and my devotion as an Episcopalian, that I think it important to support legislation banning interracial marriage.” Would this not be a situation of scandal? Would not bishops be quick to point out that this was not, in fact, the teaching of the church? Is it so hard to imagine that the scandal might result, eventually, in some form of sacramental discipline?
All of this is to say: Disagree with the Catholic Church’s teaching all you want, but have a little self-awareness before you start pontificating on people being “political” or not. No amount of “whataboutism” can modify, from the perspective of Catholic canon law, a pastor’s responsibility for the salvation of souls. For a bishop this includes not just Nancy Pelosi’s soul but the souls of all the faithful who do not understand how a person who so flagrantly, publicly, and repeatedly says and does things that no Catholic should say and do, despite repeated warnings and pleadings to repent, can waltz up to Communion as if it doesn’t matter.
Not to grasp this as a scandal is not to grasp, even in its most elementary outline, Catholic teaching about the Eucharist and about sin. (And on the subject of “whatabouts,” I don’t know of any serious Catholic who wouldn’t affirm a Catholic bishop’s right to make just such a decision about a Catholic politician from a more “conservative” position who repeatedly disregards or belittles core Church teaching on other matters.)
In other words, I’d submit that Cordileone has just as much right to impose sacramental discipline on a member of his flock (as archbishop of San Francisco he is Speaker Pelosi’s “proper pastor” in a canonical sense) as any other ecclesiastical authority. Other authorities might, indeed — Cardinal Gregory of Washington comes to mind — come to different conclusions, and they do so within the competence of their jurisdiction and, one dare hope, with the good of the whole Church in mind. I may vociferously disagree with the Episcopal Church’s revisionist definition of the sacraments of matrimony and order, but I do not question that body’s right to govern itself by its own rules. A church without basic disciplinary standards is no church at all.
It might come as a shock to acknowledge this in polite society, but there is real disagreement about abortion. There is disagreement about what we might call fundamental moral questions (when human life begins, what obligations we have to the unborn, what obligations we have to pregnant women) as well as disagreement on policy (whether abortion should be legal at all, whether there should be limits to its legality). If a bishop said to one of the faithful, “You cannot receive communion unless you vote for or against this or that bill,” that might indeed be a kind of “weaponization” of the Eucharist. But I know of no bishop who has done such a thing.
If the Eucharist were merely a meal, the various memes and protests about Jesus “eating with sinners” might be useful. But it is no mere meal — at least, that is what anyone calling himself a Catholic ought to affirm. St. Paul himself says that it is dangerous to receive it unworthily. Has the holy apostle “weaponized” the Lord’s table? Hardly. We weaponize ourselves, in opposition to the Church’s unity and witness, when we approach the table without “discerning the body.”