Pelosi receives Communion at Vatican after earlier U.S. bishop refusal

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ROME — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a Catholic and vocal supporter of abortion rights, received Holy Communion on Wednesday during a papal Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, according to an attendee at the Mass.

The ceremony at the Vatican stood in marked contrast to the decision by conservative San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone to instruct the priests in his diocese to withhold Eucharist from Pelosi because of her stance on abortion.

In September, Pope Francis had said, “I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone,” although he later added that he had never knowingly encountered during Communion a politician backing abortion rights and reiterated the church position that abortion is “murder.” But Francis had said that the decision on granting Communion to politicians who support abortion rights should be made from a pastoral point of view, not a political one.

Pelosi challenges archbishop’s denial of Communion over abortion rights

The Communion for Pelosi comes shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, erasing the right to abortion. In a statement on the decision, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life called for a “nonideological” debate: “In the face of Western society that is losing its passion for life, this act is a powerful invitation to reflect together on the serious and urgent issue of human generativity and the conditions that make it possible,” said the academy’s head, Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia.

During the Mass at the Vatican on Wednesday, it wasn’t the 85-year-old Francis who personally handed Pelosi the holy wafer, as his active participation in Masses is increasingly constrained by a knee condition that often requires him to use a wheelchair. Before the Mass, Pelosi had a greeting with the pope where she received a blessing, according to an attendee.

The Vatican did not provide any statement on the matter and declined to comment. But in a city-state such as the Vatican, steeped in religious symbolism and the center for the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, Pelosi’s Communion can hardly be considered an oversight. It took place on the day that Francis issued an apostolic letter extolling the virtues of Mass, reminding his church of how such celebration belongs to “the totality of the faithful united in Christ.”

“The liturgy does not say ‘I’ but ‘we,’ ” Francis wrote in his letter, “and any limitation on the breadth of this ‘we’ is always demonic.”

In October, Francis met with Pelosi during a private audience at the Vatican, which the speaker later described as “a spiritual, personal and official honor.” It remains to be seen whether the Communion given to Pelosi may have any effect on Cordileone’s decision, which was shared by at least four other U.S.-based dioceses. Cordileone’s order to deny Pelosi applies only to churches in his diocese, where Pelosi resides.

Pelosi has pushed back on Cordileone’s order, questioning whether he was applying a double standard by allowing politicians who support the death penalty — which the Catholic Church opposes — to receive the sacrament.

Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova University, said what happened Wednesday strengthens the impression that there are two approaches to abortion within the Catholic Church, an issue that is even more delicate after the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

It’s unclear whether the Vatican clearly intended for Pelosi to receive the Eucharist, but Vatican authorities would have surely been aware of her presence and plans to attend Mass at St. Peter’s, Faggioli said.

“This was no surprise. Of course, on these matters, the Vatican can and should leave some things unsaid,” he said. “The fact that it wasn’t the pope who gave her the Communion allows the Vatican to preserve a modicum of deniability. It isn’t within their best interests to blatantly put a finger in the eye” of Cordileone.

But the overturning of Roe v. Wade will make it harder for the Vatican to energetically defend Pelosi, President Biden and other Catholics who support abortion rights.

“As long as Roe v. Wade was the law, one could say: These people are Catholic but must still respect the law,” Faggioli said.

But Faggioli doesn’t believe Francis, who has called on the church to be more inclusive, will allow himself to be painted into a corner.

Abortion has become one of the sectarian parameters Catholic conservatives in the United States use to decide whether you’re Catholic, Faggioli said. That idea, he said, “does not belong to Pope Francis, who never changed the church teaching on abortion but has always maintained that a church is not a country club.”

“This is one of the key points of his papacy. This is one of the things on which he and U.S. bishops do not see things eye to eye,” Faggioli said.

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