Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, has been banned from receiving Holy Communion by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco. The excommunication has been decreed in his Diocese because of her outspoken support for abortion, which seems a little harsh given that her co-religionist Joe Biden shares her views but hasn’t been excommunicated in the Washington Diocese. In fact, a great many Roman Catholic politicians in the US (Republican and Democrat) are pragmatically in favour of a woman’s ‘right to choose’ (though they may preach the ‘right to life’), but Archbishop Cordileone has singled out Nancy Pelosi because she has become rather strident on the issue: “more extreme” and “more aggressive”, in his words.
Roman Catholic Canon Law on ‘Participation in the Most Holy Eucharist’ states:
Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.
Can. 916 A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.
So the Archbishop takes the view that Nancy Pelosi is “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” by supporting abortion up to 23 weeks. Pope Francis, meanwhile, has let it be known that he has never barred anyone from receiving Holy Communion, nor would he. “No, I have never denied the Eucharist to anyone; to anyone! I don’t know if someone came to me under these conditions, but I have never refused them the Eucharist, since the time I was a priest,” he said.
“And what should a shepherd do? Be a shepherd. Not going around condemning,” he explained. “They must be a shepherd, in God’s style, which is closeness, compassion and tenderness. A shepherd that doesn’t know how to act in God’s style slips and enters into many things that are not of a shepherd.”
It all elicited an interesting conversation in a Facebook group, which included Anglican clergy (identities protected):
Rev L: I think if I knew there was an unrepentant adulterer in the congregation who was refusing to stop betraying their spouse I might ask them not to come to the communion rail till they have stopped doing it. No?
Ms B: And months down the line they could be leaving their spouse and you could discover that the marriage had been all that much more complicated than you had thought. You’d need to walk alongside all parties for a long time before you could presume to judge them.
Rev S: I think they’d need it more than anyone. I would challenge but not by withholding communion. They just get used to not coming to church.
Mr S: I agree, you just don’t know the whole situation and they would need even more someone walking alongside them.
Rev S: I find it helpful to separate punishment for a past act from current emotional or physical danger. In the case of the latter there is the option of a person receiving in a separate service from children or even from anyone with children in their lives in a service especially for them if needed. I’d preach on how to repent and what it means to receive communion but if they want to receive I’d offer them it. The unholiness of the minister doesn’t invalidate it I can’t see how the unholiness of the communicant would make a difference. We all eat and drink unworthily in the end.
Mr B: Rev’d L, I had exactly this situation in a previous congregation. It was excruciatingly difficult, although the marriage survived the crisis. In the end I decided to focus my care and support on the ‘sinned against’ rather than the ‘sinner’ while the former watched the latter come to communion without apparently a care in the world. Eventually the ‘sinner’ left the church. It helped that the adultery ceased as soon as it was discovered.
Mr E: Rev’d S, so why does Paul specify receiving unworthily as a possibility not as a universal actuality ? In that case it was about the believer checking themselves but in the earlier case of clear and persistent wrongdoing in the same letter withholding communion seems the loving and graceful discipline. Or am I just being too Scripture-literalist ?
Rev S: I would suggest self exclusion if they won’t say the confession and receive absolution – I don’t know why Paul said that. As it’s been read in the past meaning clergy should exclude people for specific sins, it just seems at odds with the sermon on the mount… esp as Anglicans hold that it doesn’t apply to the clergy.
Mr C: I often find it helpful to remember that Paul was writing letters to specific people, I suspect he may be horrified to realise they were being used as general teaching.
Mr P: Rev’d L, bringing in my customary instinct for ecclesiastical law, the Canons are quite clear that you cannot do this on your own authority but must consult the Bishop
Rev L: Rev’d S, Paul thinks the unholiness of the communicant can result in death. Mr P, my understanding is that to excommunicate someone formally I must consult the bishop within a period (seven days?) of refusing them communion, but that to ask someone not to come to the communion rail is not excommunication but basic pastoral care. The situation you raise only arises if they do present themselves and I then refuse to administer holy communion, which would (obviously) be a point of crisis.
Mr C: Related to Mr C’s point is the fact that when Paul was writing, the Church was small enough that everybody basically knew everyone else and their business – certainly the bishops at the time would know everything that was going on. There was also a lot more equality amongst the Church in terms of their social situation with regard to wider society. For these reasons it was quite different to the scenario you have now where US RC bishops are telling clergy to withhold communion from particular politicians and using communion as a political weapon. It’s not workable in the same way, especially when it’s a situation like this where the UC RCC has effectively become a far-right schismatic group of its own.
Mr P: Rev’d L, there is no such thing as ‘formal excommunication’ in the CofE. The norm in Canon B16 is to go to the Bishop first, except “in case of grave and immediate scandal” when the 7 days are a maximum before contacting the Bishop.
Rev L: There is such a thing as formal Excommunication, as such Excommunications are to be read before the Sermon in the Book of Common Prayer communion service. Asking someone not to come to Holy Communion is not excommunication. There may be all sorts of reasons someone should not present him/herself, and the wise pastor will be alert to such situations and give godly advice.
Rev S: I’m not arguing against that… just who decides that the communicant may be sufficiently unholy to risk this.
Mr P: Rev’d L, no, there were formal excommunications when the BCP was written, but the judicial process for making them was abolished by the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963, and the reference is now obsolete.
Mr C: Rev’d L, I’m sure there are those pastors who are sufficiently wise and godly to be able to handle such a situation in the way you describe – the problem comes when those pastors who are not wise or godly weaponise communion and in doing so create a far greater scandal that is extremely spiritually dangerous. I think for safeguarding purposes, it would be best done only following consultation with others and at least involving the Bishop before it happens – Paul was writing at a time when the whole Church was small enough that clergy didn’t have much choice in going it alone here, but that doesn’t make it a wise choice to make nowadays where more support is available. Which isn’t a judgement on each individual pastor anymore than eg youth workers not being alone with a child or vulnerable adult is a judgement of a specific youth worker’s intentions. It would be protective for all those involved.
Rev L: And yet the reference remains, in a legal document. I aver that it refers to something and that bishops are in a position to enforce what it refers to. Mr C, this all sounds fairly wise.
Mr P: You can aver what you like, that doesn’t make it true!
Ms K: Rev’d L, what would you do if they came forward? I suspect I would give it to them..praying for an act of grace
Rev L: This is the problem. I think it would depend on the person and my relationship with them. If I felt compelled to ask them to leave the rail I’d write to the bishop straight afterwards. I hope I am never in that situation!
Rev A: As a priest, I am aware that the Altar I celebrate Mass before is not my table but that of the Divine Presence. People are complicated – God has the powers and knowledge to sift the heart and bestow Grace. I am not free to exclude those who come forward.
Ms R: You could give a blessing?
Rev L: If someone is not in a fit state to receive the communion, can we really declare them blessed?
Ms R: We can ask that God bless them.
Ms B: Do you think that anyone would come forward for a blessing after the priest has declared them ‘not in a fit state to receive communion’?
Ms R: I think people come forward, and there might be times when one would need to offer a blessing, and then speak to the Bishop.
Rev M: Perfectly asked…
Mr R: Christ came to save us from sin, without exception. It’s always been difficult for humanity to accept that, our moral compass should be guided by his teachings, if not, then we are bending those teachings to fit in with our own interpretations, wrong move ☹️
Mr Y: Just give EVERYONE who wants it communion (safely, if they are a danger to others – and sometimes that means separating them from the vulnerable and reporting them to the police) and let God sort it out. There is a hierarchy of consequence and suffering caused not a hierarchy of sin anyway.
Mr K: Where they defect from the teachings of the church to such a degree that Holy Communion no longer becomes medicinal ie seeking their return to faith. But an encouragement to them. I can do anything against the teachings of the church and the priest will still reward me with the sacrament. Thus the scandal to the community. Why should I bother.
Rev S: In that situation I’d preach and have pastoral conversations about what communion is and isn’t. We bother because Jesus died for the sinful and Jesus shared bread with Judas and washed his feet.
Mr K: Indeed it comes down to the words of Christ, go sin more.
Rev S: I don’t remember him saying that to Judas. I think it is (helpfully) in Anglican liturgy in the prayer after communion though.
Ms B: Go and sin NO more, and it was to the woman at the well, not to Judas. What exactly is it that communion does for people? And if a person is not permitted to take it, what happens to them?
Mr M: A fine question
Ms B: I’m not sure what the answer is supposed to be.
Mr S: I have long been of the opinion that the faithful have more right to receive the blessed sacrament than any Priest has to give it (and a Priest certainly does not have the right to deny it). That’s why I find the situation where American bishops have instructed the clergy in the USA to deny Holy Communion to certain politicians, utterly preposterous. Holy Communion is spiritual nourishment for all sinners and should be administered without judgement.
Mr J: For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. The church needn’t judge, the unrepentant sinner brings judgement on themselves.
Mr M: When I was at my lowest, and feeling my most unworthy, it was sitting at the back of church, avoiding contact with other people, but holding on to Holy Communion that kept me from despair. Without it, I would have been bereft. There is a very good chance that a priest might have denied me that, I’m not sure, but consequently, now i am a priest, i would never weaponize the sacrament.
Ms S: Beautifully put, when you see it as weaponising it , it shows how at odds with Christ’s message of love & non judgment it would be . Who are any of us to act as gatekeeper to God’s love. And surely it’s supremely arrogant to imagine man made rules & social constructs can trump his message. You are so very right .
Rev L: It may be pertinent to remind the Church of England clergy commenting that our doctrinal standard is the Book of Common Prayer, and that the Exhortations in its communion service are authoritative texts.
Rev S: Is there no room for innovation?
Mr A: Rev’d L, personally I’m more inspired by clergy who continue to follow the example of Jesus, even when it brings them into conflict with “authoritative texts”.
Rev L: The dangerous leaders of cults say the same.
Mr A: For example?
Mr A: Oh dear. Are you struggling to find an example of a “dangerous cult leader” who wants to see clergy follow the example of Jesus more?
Rev L: Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to do this, don’t they, cutting themselves off from creeds and confessions. Don’t do that.
Mr A: Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons consider the New World Translation and the Book of Mormon respectively as authoritative texts. If you have any examples of “dangerous” Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon leaders saying that following the example of Jesus is more important than adherence to their authoritative texts, then I would genuinely like to hear them. Ironically, both Jesus himself and his early followers were considered to be “dangerous leaders of a cult” (your words) by the religious establishment at the time. (Luke 23:2 and Acts 17:6 for example). So just to clarify, when you curtly declare “don’t do this”, are you really suggesting that followers of Jesus should NOT place the example and teachings of Jesus before adherence to “authoritative” texts of the religious institution? And that doing so would make them “dangerous”?
Mr M: Rev’d S, Yes – oddly I thought Jesus sat with sinners and welcomed them as his own. Where is the line drawn? Are clergy bouncers at the gates of heaven or agents of grace ? I say this from a distance…
Ms S: Yes !
Mr G: That’s why you’re Anglican and we’re not.
Rev L: I’m not so sure. The Book of Common Prayer is quite strict about who should receive holy communion and who should not.
Ms H: I don’t believe that the BCP over rides Jesus?
Ms S: Ms H, 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻my thoughts entirely
Mr C: I’m angry that the RCC is denying communion to Pelosi for opposing a ban on abortion, but not denying communion to the many catholic politicians who oppose a ban on guns. Guns are actually killing actual children
Rev T: They could do both, indeed.
Mr C: I actually think it’s an abuse of the sacrament if you’re denying only senior politicians. The same rules should apply to all, but they know they wouldn’t have much of a church left if the excluded all the people who support Roe. In this case the blatant real reason is that in the states the religious establishment want Christians to vote for Trump’s Republicans and they hate that Biden and Pelosi are demonstrating that you don’t have to be a Republican if you are Christian.
Rev T: People supporting something that is contra the teaching of the church is very different to being on the legislature for it.
Mr C: I disagree. But even in that case then it ought to apply to all the legislators who support it and not just one high profile one. Its absolutely disgusting that the RCC gets so worked up about abortion but will do nothing about school shootings
Rev T: They have in the past refused communion to legislators who have fought for the death penalty. You either support this or you don’t. The RCC don’t see it as sinful to be wrong. They see it as sinful to be unrepentantly voting for infanticide.
Mr C: Let me be clear- I don’t support denying communion to politicians because they disagree with the establishment. I’m angry that so many “Christians” here in the US are so passionately opposed to abortion, but dont care that real human children are being butchered in schools
Rev T: So you don’t think you should stop politicians who are voting for greater gun freedoms (and capital punishment ) from receiving communion until they repent, despite what you said in you op?
Mr C: No I don’t support denying communion to politicians and I didn’t say that.
Rev T: You’d just like them to be consistent? I personally feel that it would be wrong to give communion to a parishioner who was actively standing as a candidate in a white supremacist organisation, or engaging in acts of terrorism against immigrant groups.
Mr C: I think 99% of the problems, hypocrisy and immoral behaviour by church leaders can be ascribed to a failure to have clear and transparent rules, consistently applied. I do think its hypocrisy to bar Pelosi from communion because she opposes criminalization of abortion, but shrug at actual murders of actual children.
Rev T: Those who have had an abortion (or encouraged their partner to do so) are not able to receive communion unless they repent, and likewise with those who have murdered children with a gun.
Mr C: That’s not true though.
Rev S: What about people who voted for governments who reduce support for mothers in poverty?
Mr C: This is the problem. It is never ending the reasons you could make up to deny someone communion based on politics.
Rev S: This conversation points to a way we define sin and worst sinners. To me it seems at odds with Jesus of the gospels.
Rev T: Mr C, what’s not true? Unrepentant sin is a bar to receiving communion in the Roman Catholic church.
Mr C: Rev’d S, exactly. Jesus shared communion with Judas.
Rev S: So why do we list specific sins?
Rev T: Because voting to reduce or increase welfare is not a sin. It is a sin to vote for the state to directly kill people. I am astonished you can’t see the difference.
Mr C: It is in theory in every church I’ve been in, but allowing people to make their own judgement on whether that’s them or not is very different to making an announcement in the media that you are denying communion to an individual because of their behavior
Rev S: What about the ones in the sermon on the mount. Intentions create actions – voting can be sinful or not depending on the intention. It just so happens they list all the sins they don’t do as people in power
Rev T: Mr C, Roman Catholics have to go to confession regularly before receiving communion, precisely to ensure they are not holding on to unrepentant sin and receiving unworthily. It doesn’t do anyone any favours to communicate them when they are so doing. Rev’d S, what about them?
Mr C: Which are in private and it doesn’t seem to me that RCC people are often denied communion by the priest. The pope has even claimed he has never denied communion
Rev T: Denying someone communion publicly is something that is only done in the case of public unrepentant sin. People who are openly committing adultery are often in this category. Usually if someone has come to confession and they have confessed to unrepentant sin they will be told to refrain from receiving communion until they have received absolution. Pope Francis has not been a parish priest for a long time.
Rev S: I’ve known quite a lot of people who everyone has known treat young women/men in a lecherous way or who regularly bully others. Why would you go to confession if you don’t want to turn?
Rev T: Every person I have ever known is a sinner, what’s your point?
Rev S: Public sins aren’t just the ones listed to bar people from communion – those are generally the sins of the desperate.
Rev T: Any unrepentant sin is a bar to receiving communion in the Roman Catholic church. Even we are clear in our liturgy that repentance is a must. This shouldn’t be controversial.
Rev S: But others are decided by the individual – have you never taken communion with sin?
Rev T: I cannot remember if I have ever taken communion with unrepentant sin in my heart knowingly, but if I have, I shouldn’t have. I have chosen not to receive many times as a result of unrepentant sin.
Rev S: Ah well – hope you have a good day.
Ms S: As a lay person I find this really interesting. Some of it seems at odds with the principal of not judging.
Ms W: Yes. This guy is so out of touch with the residents of SF. 🤦🏼♀️🤷🏼♀️😡
Rev L: I think he’ll cope with that.
Mr S: His Excellency appears to cope well enough when openly defying his Supreme Pontiff. I must have missed the news reports telling us that the Chair of St Peter had been relocated to San Francisco!
Mr T: Regarding those who say we should not take sides over the issue of adultery (or domestic violence or coercive control) I can only refer you to Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Rev L: We do much damage by only thinking of the pastoral need in front of us, and not how our response will impact those not in the room.
Rev S: Also getting your partner banned from church can be used as a weapon, even as a form of abuse
Rev L: Indeed. Not sure what your point is.
Mr G: Thanks for posting and generating such an interesting discussion. Whether or not one agrees with it I thought this piece helpfully set out some of the issues from the point of view of a supporter of sacramental discipline by church authorities. https://covenant.livingchurch.org/2022/05/27/sacramental-discipline/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sacramental-discipline
Rev S: Thanks. Was there a particular point you thought would add to this discussion from this?
Mr G: Thanks for asking. Mainly I thought it expressed well the sort of thinking likely underlying the decision to deny Communion by someone supportive of it and it is always good to hear the rationale offered by someone committed to a position and engage with that. In doing so it covers some of the issues discussed here and so adds to those discussions but also perhaps adds in some new ones. Different people will find the piece helpful or unhelpful in various ways. For me some of what I found interesting was the claim “that this isn’t merely a “conservative” or “progressive” thing as much as it is a “Church” thing” and that we should not question that a church has a “right to govern itself by its own rules”. Also in light of the article and the discussion here I have been reflecting on whether the best objection to this action is based on objection to any form of church discipline in such circumstances or more specifically the form of denying the sacrament because it is held that this should always be given as a means of grace to all wishing to receive no matter what they are publicly known to have said or done and continue to defend contrary to church teaching? If the latter that raises the question of whether there are other forms of non-sacramental church discipline – what might those be? – which might be right whether in this circumstance relating to abortion or some of the alternative hypothetical situations aired in the article.
Mr M: “… I can’t imagine a situation where we would not.” What if the person is absolutely unrepentant about what they have done? What if it was an unrepentant murderer, or rapist, or paedophile? Surely communion is only for those who have repented their sins?
Rev S: What if there were about to go and sell their best friend over to be murdered for kindness? Jesus shared the first last supper with Judas. I do as he did – that’s the deal of discipleship. I’ve regularly given it to convicted paedophiles and probably rapists. Everyone is invited to confess. As far as I know everyone does. The body of Christ was never a prize for good behaviour.
Mr M: But didn’t Jesus say “go away and sin no more” when he forgave people? Didn’t the people he forgave express sorrow for what they had done? I don’t recall Jesus ever saying “I forgive you even if you are not sorry and fully intend to keep on sinning”. And convicted is not the same as unrepentant. If someone is not sorry for the damage they have done and the sorrow they have caused by their actions, why should they be given communion?
Rev S: At that moment he said “What you have to do, Judas, do it quickly.”
Mr M: Yeah, but that is not the same as forgiving him. That’s just saying get it over with asap. I just don’t feel that a person who is unrepentant about their sins deserves communion.
Rev S: He still gave him communion knowing this. That’s a bigger deal for me than forgiving him.
Mr M: Just shows that Jesus is more forgiving than me. I simply think it makes a mockery of the suffering of the victims of crime if the CofE gets all ‘fluffy bunny’ and ‘touchy-feely’ in its attitude to unrepentant rapists, murderers, paedophiles, etc. If salvation depends upon people repenting for their sins, then what is the point of wasting communion on sinners who won’t repent?
And on (and on) it (still) goes.
Bishop Marc Andrus of the Episcopal Bishop of California has told Nancy Pelosi that she would be welcome to receive Communion in his church. He writes:
As the Episcopal Bishop of California, I want to speak to the public announcement that Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be denied communion in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and to say Speaker Pelosi is welcome to communion in all Episcopal churches in the Bay Area, as I am sure she is welcome to many faith communities everywhere. I support Speaker Pelosi in her clear commitment to women, children and families, her evident deep, personal faith and her embrace of a country founded on principles that include, importantly, separation of church and state.
Further, my statement is aligned with the policy of the Episcopal Church that affirms a call for “…women’s reproductive health and reproductive health procedures to be treated as all other medical procedures.” Further, our Episcopal Church position declares “that equitable access to women’s health care, including women’s reproductive health care, is an integral part of a woman’s struggle to assert her dignity and worth as a human being.”
For millions of Christians worldwide, receiving the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, also known as Communion or the Mass, is central to their faith practice. This sacrament of Christ’s Last Supper, a shared meal of bread and wine, is a sacred time of spiritual nourishment for the faithful of my denomination, the Episcopal Church, and many others, perhaps most notably the Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches of the Christian faith.
As someone who has known Speaker Nancy Pelosi for more than 16 years, I believe she is greatly strengthened by the Sacrament she receives in her Church, the Roman Catholic Church. In the midst of heavy legislative duties and during times of travel, I have seen her, over and over again, make time to attend Eucharist. She does this not only on Sundays but also on Church feast days, such is the importance of the Sacrament to her faith practice. I have also heard her, time and again, reference knowledgeably and reverently the content of her faith as the wellspring from which her leadership comes.
This sincere and enduring faith, with the Sacrament of Communion at its center, has fueled Speaker Pelosi’s tireless and historic efforts to stand in solidarity with vulnerable and oppressed people everywhere, women and children especially. Now, with the future of women’s reproductive healthcare in the United States imperiled by the Supreme Court’s apparent stance on Roe v. Wade, I would argue that she needs the nurturing Sacrament of Holy Communion more than ever. The health and, in many cases, very lives of women, children, and families — all part of God’s beloved human family — are at stake.
I do not imagine nor suggest that Speaker Pelosi should abandon the Church she loves so dearly and to which she has been faithful her whole life. However, speaking as the leader of the Episcopal Church in the Bay Area, let me humbly reiterate that every Episcopal congregation in the Bay Area will welcome Nancy Pelosi, as we welcome all who wish to join us, to the Table of Jesus Christ, the Holy Eucharist.
Our beloved Speaker Pelosi is not alone in this moment, rather, as Jesus assured his terrified, confused followers in the days before his arrest and execution by the Roman Empire, God has given the world the gift of the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God, present to all, and is certainly present to Nancy Pelosi.
Speaker Pelosi has my gratitude for her leadership, my support, and my prayers.
The Rt. Rev Marc Andrus, PhD
Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California
Now, whatever your personal politics, and whatever your passionate beliefs about abortion and “women’s reproductive health and reproductive health procedures”, isn’t this a slightly more Christian response then telling Nancy Pelosi, very publicly, “You are not worthy”?