On June 5, in reaction to radical new pro-abortion laws passed in the state of Illinois, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield issued a decree “declaring that Illinois legislative leaders who promoted and voted for the act … are not to be admitted to receive Holy Communion” and that said legislators should not try to receive it. Predictably, this action has caused a large amount of controversy.
The first question is whether the bishop is right to do so. In his decree, he invoked Canon 915 which states “those who persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” Abortion is unquestionably a grave sin, and while the legislators, by supporting and passing this legislation, are not personally procuring or performing abortions, this does not remove their culpability. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them … by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them; by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so; by protecting evil-doers” (CCC 1868). Passing an abortion law praises and approves abortion, does not hinder it despite the moral obligation to do so, and protects abortionists (evil-doers) who perform the procedures. I’m no canon lawyer, but this doesn’t seem like a difficult thing to discern. The violation of Canon 915 seems clear.
The idea that pro-abortion politicians should be denied Holy Communion is not new, and Bishop Paprocki is not the first to speak out about it. Pope Francis said in 2013, “We must adhere to Eucharistic coherence, that is, be conscious that [legislators] cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged.” Not all comments have been so supportive of this idea. In 2009, justifying his refusal to deny Holy Communion to vehemently pro-abortion politician Nancy Pelosi, Cardinal Donald Wuerl said that to do otherwise would be “Communion wielded as a weapon” and that “it wasn’t a way we convinced Catholic politicians to appropriate the faith and live it and apply it.” Wuerl said Canon 915 is not meant to be used this way, but Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, then prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (the Church’s highest judicial authority), disagreed. Burke stated, “Certainly this is a case when Canon 915 must be applied. This is a person who obstinately, after repeated admonitions, persists in a grave sin.”
This leads us to the comments by Cardinal Blase Cupich, of the Archdiocese of Chicago, in response to the recent Illinois abortion bill and Bishop Paprocki’s decree. Cupich said, “I think it would be counterproductive to impose sanctions, simply because they don’t change anybody’s minds.” I’m going to have to disagree with the cardinal on this. Denial of Holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians could be heavily productive.
Confusion reigns among Catholics as to whether or not they can, in good conscience, vote for pro-abortion politicians. Anyone who has spent time on Catholic discussion boards and Facebook groups knows that questions about this point come up on a regular basis, with bitter debates among the laity as to what the answer is. A unified stance among the bishops denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians would help clarify this. It also clarifies to the laity where the politicians’ priorities are. If we believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and in the teachings of the Catholic Church, nothing comes before that. By forcing these politicians to choose between politics and the apex of Christian earthly experience, we show those who choose the former for the unserious “Catholics” they are — especially important when they often lean on their Catholic identity to defuse worries from Catholic voters about the morality of supporting them despite their positions.
Most importantly, a clear stance by the Church against pro-abortion lawmakers may help effect the demise of abortion’s legality. Catholics make up an estimated quarter to a third of the electorate, and last year, approximately half voted to support pro-abortion politicians.* If unity from the bishops on this issue, demonstrated with clear penalties for pro-abortion Catholic legislators, could convince Catholic voters to deny their support for pro-abortion politicians, it would be anything but “counterproductive.”
Also, this is a measure that should be done for the sake of the politician. Cupich elaborated in his statement that denying Holy Communion “takes away from the fact that an elected official has to deal with the judgment seat of God, not just the judgment seat of a bishop. I think that’s much more powerful.” No doubt, it is more powerful, but why not both? How are we exercising charity by allowing others to persist in their sins without attempting to persuade them to repent and amend their lives? Wouldn’t it be great if some intervention from the bishop, a little tough love, means that when they do stand before the judgement seat of God, they will have already repented and ceased to persist in this sin? Maybe Cupich is right and it won’t work, but even if so, how are we helping them by allowing them to sin further while receiving Holy Communion while not in a condition to? Maybe he’s wrong, and this action will be the one that causes a change of heart and saves them.
Perhaps the most important reason for denying communion to pro-abortion politicians is our belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Those in a state of grave sin must not receive Holy Communion. To allow them is to aid and abet their further sin of receiving the Eucharist while not in a state of grace. To sum up, as 1 Corinthians 11:27 states (and Bishop Paprocki quotes in his decree), “[w]hoever eats unworthily of the bread and drinks from the Lord’s cup makes himself guilty of profaning the body and of the blood of the Lord.”
*Fifty percent voted for candidates of the Democratic Party. While not every Democratic politician supports abortion, the party itself officially does.