The Most Rev. Salvatore J. Cordileone, the Catholic archbishop in San Francisco, said Friday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will be denied the sacrament of Holy Communion because of her vocal support for abortion rights.
The edict from Cordileone, one of the country's most conservative Catholic leaders, represents an extraordinary rebuke of Pelosi's Catholic faith, which the 82-year-old speaker frequently invokes when discussing her family, her policies and her politics.
Democrats and abortion rights advocates have responded with alarm in recent weeks following the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the right to abortion established in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Cordileone last year called for Communion to be withheld from public figures who support abortion rights but did not mention Pelosi by name at the time.
"After numerous attempts to speak with her to help her understand the grave evil she is perpetrating, the scandal she is causing, and the danger to her own soul she is risking, I have determined that the point has come in which I must make a public declaration that she is not to be admitted to Holy Communion unless and until she publicly repudiates her support for abortion 'rights' and confess and receive absolution for her cooperation in this evil in the sacrament of Penance," Cordileone said Friday in a letter to members of his archdiocese.
"I have accordingly sent her a Notification to this effect, which I have now made public," he added.
In a separate letter to Pelosi, Cordileone ordered the House speaker "not to present yourself for Holy Communion" and warned that if she does, she will not be given the sacrament.
A Pelosi spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Holy Communion is the central sacrament of Catholicism and the centerpiece of the Catholic Mass — a ritual memorial of Christ's death on the cross in which bread and wine are said to be transformed into his flesh and blood.
Catholic archbishops have vast power within their diocese, and a reversal of Cordileone's decision would require the intervention of the Vatican, which is unlikely. The order to deny Communion to Pelosi appears to apply only to Catholic churches within the San Francisco archdiocese, including the speaker's home church.
Last September, Pope Francis said the decision about granting Communion to politicians who support abortion rights should be made from a pastoral point of view, not a political one. He told reporters: "I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone," while adding that he has never knowingly encountered during Communion a politician who backs abortion rights. Francis, however, reiterated that abortion is "murder."
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released earlier this month, 55 percent of Catholics in the United States want the Supreme Court to uphold Roe. Catholic teaching opposes abortion, however, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last year debated the meaning of Communion and whether it is appropriate to withhold the sacrament from Catholic politicians such as Pelosi or President Joe Biden who support abortion rights.
After a firestorm of debate, the bishops clarified that there will be "no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians." They later released a document on Communion but declined to single out politicians who back abortion rights.
In a statement, Jamie L. Manson, president of the abortion rights group Catholics for Choice, said Cordileone is "waging a culture war that the bishops have already retreated from." He called on church leaders to "stop stigmatizing and start listening to Catholics who are pro-choice."
"We ask Archbishop Cordileone and those who share his crusade to listen to Pope Francis' call to encounter," Manson said. "Remember that the pope himself, just six months ago, sat with Speaker Pelosi at this table, and he has said definitively that he has never denied Communion to anyone."
The antiabortion group American Life League, meanwhile, applauded Cordileone's decision and lashed out at Pelosi for her stance on Roe, calling her "the great deceiver." "American Life League now calls on Cardinal Wilton Gregory to immediately deny Holy Communion to faux Catholic Joe Biden," Hugh Brown, the group's vice president, said in a statement, referring to the archbishop of Washington.
Pelosi often refers to her own prayers and her religious responsibility to seek the greater good. Asked in 2018 why she entered politics, she invoked her childhood in a churchgoing political family in Baltimore.
"We were always taught in our family that we had a responsibility to other people, that our sense of community said that if we could be helpful to them, that was our responsibility," she said. "It was also part of our Catholic faith that we had responsibilities to each other."
Pelosi is occasionally challenged on her abortion views at news conferences and in other forums. Her frequent response is to recount her own experience as a mother of five children, all born within a span of six years.
In 2015, a reporter asked Pelosi if an "unborn baby with a human heart and a human liver" was a human being.
"I am a devout, practicing Catholic," Pelosi replied. "A mother of five children."
"I think I know more about this subject than you, with all due respect," she added. "I do not intend to respond to your question which has no basis in what public policy we do here."
After Cordileone last year condemned a bill codifying the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade into federal law as an "atrocity" and "nothing short of child sacrifice," Pelosi acknowledged a "disagreement" with the prelate.
"I believe that God has given us a free will to honor our responsibilities," she said, before again talking about her own family.
"For us, it was a complete and total blessing, which we enjoy every day of our lives," Pelosi added. "But it's none of our business how other people choose the size and timing of their families."
In his letter a letter to members of his archdiocese on Friday, Cordileone said he finds "no pleasure whatsoever in fulfilling my pastoral duty here" by denying Pelosi Communion. The speaker "has been uppermost in my prayer intentions ever since I became the Archbishop of San Francisco," he added.
"Speaker Pelosi remains our sister in Christ," Cordileone said. "Her advocacy for the care of the poor and vulnerable elicits my admiration. I assure you that my action here is purely pastoral, not political."
Cordileone also sent a letter Friday to the priests of his archdiocese in which he outlined a series of actions since September, when the House took up the legislation codifying Roe, known as the Women's Health Protection Act.
Cordileone sent Pelosi a letter at that time, asking for a meeting and warning the speaker that she was inviting a public rebuke. Around that time, he said, he also launched a prayer campaign, "Rose and Rosary for Nancy," directed specifically at Pelosi.
Twice more in subsequent months, Cordileone said, he requested meetings with Pelosi, which were denied by the speaker's staff. And in April, he said, he sent Pelosi a second, more sternly-worded letter specifically threatening her ability to receive Holy Communion.
Again, he said, "I received no response."
Cordileone said he again contacted Pelosi's office on May 4 — in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court opinion leak — "urgently" seeking to speak to her. He did so, he said, after Pelosi invoked her religion in defending the right to abortion.
"The very idea that they would be telling women the size, timing or whatever of their family, the personal nature of this is so appalling, and I say that as a devout Catholic," Pelosi told the Seattle Times editorial board that day. "They say to me, 'Nancy Pelosi thinks she knows more about having babies than the Pope.' Yes I do. Are you stupid?"
In his letter Friday, Cordileone told the priests Pelosi left him no choice. He mentioned Pelosi's "resistance to pastoral counsel," which appeared to be a reference to Pope Francis's admonition to bishops last year to be "pastors, and not go condemning," when confronting politicians who support abortion rights.
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The Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.