Bishop Thomas Paprocki, 65, is bishop of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1978, and became Springfield’s bishop in 2010.
On February 13, echoing a statement issued by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Bishop Paprocki called the US Senate’s failure to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act “appalling.” The measure would have prohibited abortions starting at 20 weeks after fertilization.
The act was sponsored by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who, in a statement, noted that 20 weeks is “a point at which there is significant scientific evidence that abortion inflicts tremendous pain on these vulnerable human beings.” Graham also stated: “There are only seven countries that allow wholesale abortions at the 20-week period, including China and North Korea. The United States should not be in that club. I don’t believe abortion, five months into pregnancy, makes us a better nation. America is at her best when she’s standing up for the least among us and the sooner we pass this legislation into law, the better. We are on the right side of history.”
NARAL Pro-Choice America urged its supporters to help defeat the measure, telling them to write their legislators saying that the act “would disproportionately hurt women and families who face some of the most medically complex situations imaginable…keep standing strong against anti-choice Republicans.”
Fifty-one senators (48 Republican, three Democrat) voted to take up the bill for debate, falling short of the 60 votes required. Bishop Paprocki noted that 14 Catholic senators voted against the bill, including Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), who resided in his Diocese of Springfield. The other 11 Catholic Democrats voting against the act were Senators Maria Cantwell (WA), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Tim Kaine (VA), Patrick Leahy (VT), Ed Markey (MA), Catherine Cortez Masto (NV), Claire McCaskill (MO), Bob Menendez (NJ), Patty Murray (WA) and Jack Reed (RI). Two Catholic Republicans voted against the act: Senators Susan Collins (ME) and Lisa Murkowski (AK).
Bishop Paprocki, quoting Canon 915 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law, noted in a statement: “Because [Senator Durbin’s] voting record in support of abortion over many years constitutes ‘obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin,’ the determination continues that Sen. Durbin is not to be admitted to Holy Communion until he repents of this sin.”
Bishop Paprocki spoke to CWR this week about the vote, his statement, Senator Durbin, abortion, Holy Communion, canon law, and related matters.
CWR: What is some of the history that led to the point of you deciding to issue the February 13 statement? You mentioned that Bishop Kevin Vann had a similar view back in 2004.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki: The statement was prompted by the failure of the US Senate to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act which prohibited abortion at 20 weeks. We’re talking about 3rd trimester abortions, which most nations ban. The House passed the bill, and President Trump said he’d sign it.
Among those voting against the Act were 14 senators who identified themselves as Catholic, including Senator Durbin, who resides in the Diocese of Springfield. I agree with Cardinal Dolan that the failure of this measure is appalling, and in the case of Senator Durbin, it is truly appalling that he voted against it.
As I said in my statement, the history on Senator Durbin and abortion in relation to this diocese goes back a number of years. Msgr. Kevin Vann [now Bishop of Orange, California] was then pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Springfield, where Senator Durbin attended. He said he’d be reticent to give Senator Durbin Holy Communion because of his pro-abortion position. My predecessor, who is now Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Nebraska, said he supported that position. When I was appointed bishop of Springfield in 2010, Senator Durbin asked if there would be a change in this position. I said no, as long as there was not a change of his position on abortion.
As I said in quoting Canon 915, those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” That Canon places a limitation on the one distributing Holy Communion, whether it be a bishop, priest, deacon, or lay Eucharistic minister. By Baptism we have a right to receive the Sacrament, but it can be restricted under certain clear conditions. Senator Durbin has been obstinate in his position, as it goes back 14 years to when Msgr. Vann spoke to him about it, he has been persistent, as he continues to vote in favor of abortion rights, it is manifest, as voting as a member of Congress is a public act, and support for abortion is a grave sin, as was made clear to him by Msgr. Vann.
The USCCB issued a statement in 2004 on Catholics in the political life, stating, “Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice. Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good.”
Voting in favor of legalized abortion is sinful, and this situation constitutes all the conditions laid out in Canon 915, so I made the decision to make the announcement that Senator Durbin should not receive Holy Communion in this diocese. But, the final point I made, was that this decision was not intended to punish, but to bring about a change of heart. We’re all called to examine our hearts, and look to areas in need of change. It’s a call to conversion.
Senator Durbin was once pro-life. He changed somewhere along the line. I hope he comes back to his roots. I offer my prayers, and invite the faithful to do so as well, that this change happens.
CWR: It is important to stress that this decision is nothing new. Your predecessor, Bishop Lucas, had already indicated that he supported barring Senator Durbin from Holy Communion as long as he supported the pro-abortion position.
Bishop Paprocki: Yes, it is nothing new. The February 13 statement was making public something that has been in effect for years. And, to my knowledge, these past 14 years Senator Durbin has not been coming to church or receiving Holy Communion.
CWR: What prompted you to make this policy public?
Bishop Paprocki: Many Catholic lay people were upset that Catholic members of Congress were voting in favor of abortion, and in this case, late-term abortion, which is particularly gruesome.
CWR: When you spoke to Senator Durbin in 2010, did he explain to you why he, as a Catholic, voted in favor of legalized abortion?
Bishop Paprocki: No, he didn’t go into any details. I don’t know why he changed his position. There were once many Democrats for life, but that group seems to be getting smaller and smaller.
I should add, however, that this is not an attack on the Democrat party. It is about abortion, and it applies to Republicans who vote in favor of it as well. There are pro-choice Republicans. In Illinois, our governor, Bruce Rauner, is a Republican. He recently signed into law HB 40, which provides taxpayer funding for abortion. Other states have taxpayer funding of abortion, but usually it is imposed by the courts. In our state, it came from our Democrat-dominated legislature. Governor Rauner had told Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago that he’d veto HB 40, but when it came to his desk, he flip-flopped and signed it. Cardinal Cupich and I were very upset with the governor and let him know. I bring this case up to make the point that with both political parties we hope there will be a greater movement towards protecting human life.
CWR: Please explain the penalty Senator Durbin has incurred. How does this compare to excommunication?
Bishop Paprocki: Excommunication goes farther, placing a person outside of the community, not just barring him from Holy Communion. There are other implications.
A person prohibited from Communion, or even excommunicated, should still go to Mass, however. They have the obligation to attend, and can pray without going to Holy Communion.
CWR: And what if they present themselves for Communion?
Bishop Paprocki: No one wants a confrontation. These matters are usually addressed in private conversation, as was done by Msgr. Vann in Senator Durbin’s case. This meeting does not take place in church.
This does not only apply to politicians. I have had this conversation with the divorced who have remarried without an annulment. Such a person is not eligible to receive Communion.
Hopefully the person would have the integrity to not make a scene. To his credit, Senator Durbin has honored this decision in our diocese. But if such a person came to me when I was distributing Holy Communion, while I would prefer not to have a confrontation, I would invite that person to make a spiritual Communion.
CWR: Why does the Church teach that abortion is always wrong?
Bishop Paprocki: This is a longstanding teaching in the Church. It goes back to the Didache, which is the [first century] teaching of the 12 apostles. It states “do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.” It’s been the understanding of the Church for 2,000 years.
Some people say, “Show me where in the Bible it says abortion is wrong.” True, it does not use the word abortion, but it does say “thou shalt not murder,” which includes murdering the unborn child by abortion.
I would also add, when it comes receiving Holy Communion while in grave sin, that St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27 said, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.”
Receiving Holy Communion in an unworthy manner is profaning the Sacrament. It is what we call the sin of sacrilege. Someone receiving Communion in this situation compounds his sin with a sacrilege.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ famous prayer of thanksgiving after Holy Communion says, “I pray that this Holy Communion may not bring me condemnation and punishment but forgiveness and salvation.” How can Holy Communion bring us condemnation? If we understand what a sacrilege is, we can understand.
Some people say that we are all unworthy of receiving Holy Communion. That is true, none of us is worthy of receiving the Body and Blood of Our Lord, but God gives us the grace of forgiveness whereby we can receive it worthily, but not if we persist in grave sin.
I’ve been talking about Canon 915, but I would also remind people of Canon 916, which states that a person in grave sin is not to present himself to receive the Sacrament. It puts the burden on the individual person. The purpose is not to exclude or punish, but to encourage the sinner to go to confession and make a firm purpose of amendment. Once he has received absolution he can receive Holy Communion.
CWR: In 2008, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) described herself as an “ardent, practicing Catholic” but said that “the doctors of the Church have not been able to [determine when human life begins]…St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know.” The suggestion being that abortion is still an open question among Catholics. How would you respond?
Bishop Paprocki: It is a statement that is inaccurate and weak; it is surprising that someone in the 21st century is trying to make the statement that medically we don’t know when life begins. It’s almost laughable. Science has demonstrated to us that life begins at conception. After conception, there is no other clearly defined point as to where life could begin. Selecting such a point would be arbitrary.
We can get into medieval discussions, as to when Thomas Aquinas thought ensoulment occurs, but we live in a different time. Today, medically, as well as philosophically and theologically, we know that human life begins at conception, and that the body and soul are created at that moment.
CWR: In the 2016 vice presidential debate, Senator Tim Kaine—who was also among the Catholic senators opposing the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act—indicated his support for Roe v. Wade, saying, “You should live fully and with enthusiasm the commands of your faith, but it is not the role of the public servant to mandate that for everybody else.” What response would you offer the senator?
Bishop Paprocki: That’s a convenient argument, which goes back many years to former New York Governor Mario Cuomo (1932-2015). It’s been pretty well rebuffed. “I’m personally opposed to it, but I won’t impose my beliefs.”
That may be a valid principle if you’re talking about a doctrinal belief, like Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and non-Christians are free not to believe it. But when you’re talking about moral actions, the way we should treat other human beings, we’re always influenced by our values.
I would challenge such a politician to apply [Senator Tim Kaine’s] belief in other areas. For example, I think racism is wrong, but I will not impose that belief on others. It’s an argument out of convenience.
CWR: There are many Catholic politicians who would agree with and support wholeheartedly the US bishops’ position on abortion. However, they’d very much oppose the pope’s, an individual bishop’s, or bishops conference’s public policy statements in other areas, such as related to the death penalty, immigration policy, and economic issues. Should they, too, be denied reception of Holy Communion?
Bishop Paprocki: No, that would be different. It depends on the issue you’re talking about. Not every statement by a pope addresses an intrinsic evil or is made in an infallible way. Reasonable minds, even among Catholics, can differ.
Take immigration, for example. Yes, the Church is favorable toward a generous immigration policy. It is for scriptural reasons. For 400 years the Jews were in exile, slaves in Egypt. The Holy Family itself spent time in exile in Egypt. There is a biblical precedent towards having a favorable attitude towards migrants and refugees, but that does not translate into support for a particular immigration bill. Nations have a right to regulate their borders, determining who is admissible, and whether to have a narrower or wider latitude for admission. It is a prudential judgment. A Catholic in good conscience could say, “I’m favorable towards helping migrants, but I don’t agree with this bill.”
In regards to the death penalty, it’s long been permitted under Church teaching, as long as it’s carried out legitimately. More recently, as in the case of Pope St. John Paul II, we’ve seen popes narrow the circumstances in which it can be applied. He thought in the modern age there were fewer and fewer circumstances in which it could be justified. Pope Francis has said those circumstances should be narrowed even further, but he didn’t declare it an intrinsic evil.
Other issues, however, would be similar to abortion. Same-sex “marriage,” for example, is contrary to the natural law.
CWR: What have people said to you about your February 13 announcement?
Bishop Paprocki: I’ve gotten an overwhelmingly positive response, from lay people, priests, and even some bishops. As one would expect, I’ve gotten a few negative comments from those who do not agree with Church teaching. But the critics have been in the minority.
CWR: Thirteen other Catholic senators in other states voted against the act. Will other bishops be announcing that Canon 915 prohibits their reception of Holy Communion?
Bishop Paprocki: I’m not aware of any. Our next meeting as a group of bishops will be in June, and we’ll have the chance to see one another and talk about it. The last time we discussed the topic was in 2004; the bottom line was that such a determination was up to the individual bishop depending on the circumstances.