Church Indulgences in San Francisco

What the U.S. bishops can learn from the scandal

San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer, speaking to KCBS radio in February, claimed ignorance of U.S Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s position on abortion. “I don’t believe that I am in a position to say what I understand her stand to be,” he said. Pelosi’s 100 percent pro-abortion voting record had somehow eluded him.

Asked if a person not in communion with the teachings of the Catholic Church should receive Holy Communion, he replied:

I think that when I stand at Communion time, in front of the altar, to distribute Communion, I, like all priests and bishops, I believe, am counting on the individual communicant who’s coming forward to receive Communion, to decide whether he or she is worthy of Communion and is ready to receive it, this Sacrament. I am not there principally as a gatekeeper. I am there as a priest and a celebrant to give forth the Eucharist. 

The recent controversy involving the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence”—a controversy for which the archbishop has now apologized—is explained in part by the attitudes on display in that KCBS interview. Not noticing glaring facts and holding a passive view of the duties of the priest at Communion are a formula for Church embarrassments.

On October 7, Archbishop Niederauer said a Mass at Most Holy Redeemer parish in the Castro, a neighborhood known for its large homosexual community. Two members of the homosexual activist group “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” garishly painted and costumed, approached the archbishop for Holy Communion—and he gave it to them.

News of this sparked furor across the Catholic world, and the archbishop has responded to it, offering an explanation and apology:

…I noticed no protest, no demonstration, no disruption of the Sunday Eucharist. The congregation was devout and the liturgy was celebrated with reverence. Toward the end of the Communion line two strangely dressed persons came to receive Communion. I did not see any mock religious garb. As I recall, one of them wore a large flowered hat or garland.


Afterward it was made clear to me that these two people were members of the organization “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” who have long made a practice of mocking the Catholic Church in general and religious women in particular. My predecessors, Cardinal William Levada and Archbishop John Quinn, have both denounced this group’s abuse of sacred things many times in the past. Only last year, I instructed the Administrator of Most Holy Redeemer Parish to cancel the group’s use of the hall on the parish grounds, once I became aware of it…


Although I had often seen photographs of members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, I had never encountered them in person until October 7th. I did not recognize who these people were when they approached me.


After the event, I realized that they were members of this particular organization and that giving them Holy Communion had been a mistake. I apologize to the Catholics of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and to Catholics at large for doing so… 

His apology also contained this line: “If people dress in a manner clearly intended to mock what we hold sacred, they place themselves in an objective situation in which it is not appropriate for them to receive Holy Communion, much less for a minister of the Church to give the Sacrament to them.”

Much less for a minister of the Church to give the Sacrament to them. Here we see a slight and welcome new nod towards the duties of priests at Communion under canon law.

But it has to be said, in any honest analysis of this flap, that the archbishop’s passive understanding of the priest’s role, expressed in the KCBS interview, created the conditions for anyone to receive Communion in San Francisco—from Nancy Pelosi to the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.”

After all, if a bishop says that he is not principally a “gatekeeper,” who can’t come up to receive it? Such passivity was an invitation to abuse and the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” took it.

In November, the U.S. bishops will gather in Baltimore for their annual conference, and the unresolved scandals involving Communion hang over them. Will they learn from the one in San Francisco?

The choice they face is clear: either they adopt as a uniform policy the duty enshrined in canon law to protect the sacraments from sacrilege and scandal, or these Communion controversies will multiply without end.

The idea that bishops aren’t gatekeepers would come as a surprise to the Church’s first ones. The apostles were told by Jesus Christ that the good shepherd watches the gate, lest his flock be eaten. “Do not give what is holy to dogs,” Jesus admonished them.

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke’s position, dismissed by many bishops as an incitement to chaos, is in reality the only way to end it. The temporizing “pragmatic” position has proven impractical and buffoonish, and exposed the sacraments to obvious abuse.

As Archbishop Burke has emphasized, Canon 915 is not a whimsical option for eccentric priests but a moral duty which “obliges the minister of Holy Communion to refuse the Sacrament” to those in “manifest grave sin.”

Last year, the bishops obliquely said that these sinners “should refrain” from Communion but were silent on the role of bishops and priests. Yet that’s the crucial leg of the chair which is broken and most in need of fixing—a point which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger communicated to them in a 2004 memo in which he said that the pastor of a Catholic public figure in defiance of Church teaching “should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”

The Church’s position on whether a bishop should stop sacrilege and scandal is not up for debate. The only question left is whether the bishops will follow it. The fiasco in San Francisco makes this much clear: If the bishops don’t get control over the sacraments, the Church’s enemies most certainly will.

George Neumayr


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.