Pelosi and the bishops: Cutting through the fog of controversy

The recent letter to the bishops from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, head of the CDF, does not say what the Democratic House Minority Leader thinks it says.

(Image: Jimmy Nguyen/

Back in 2010, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi famously remarked, in advocating for the passage of the Affordable Care Act: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it…” helpfully notes that her statement, while accurately reported, is missing “important context”. The longer remark by Pelosi was: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy” (emphasis added).

Yesterday, Matt Hadro of Catholic News Service reported that Pelosi “said she was ‘pleased’ with the Vatican’s recent letter to U.S. bishops on Communion for pro-abortion politicians.”


Pelosi, who is Catholic, was asked by EWTN News Nightly correspondent Erik Rosales about the topic of Communion on Thursday.

“I think I can use my own judgment on that,” Pelosi said of receiving Holy Communion.

The Speaker has long supported legal abortion and has advocated for taxpayer-funded abortion by repealing the Hyde Amendment. She has also supported the Equality Act, legislation that the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB) has warned would “punish” religious groups opposed to the redefinition of marriage and transgender ideology

Pelosi added that she was “pleased with what the Vatican put out on that subject” of Communion for pro-abortion Catholic politicians, claiming that the Vatican’s statement “basically said ‘don’t be divisive on the subject’.”

It’s not clear if Pelosi has actually read the document in question, a letter written by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and dated May 7, 2021. Having now read a copy of the letter, I can say that Pelosi’s confidence in matters of faith and morals (not to mention ecclesiastical conversations) is, not surprisingly, seriously deficient.

Here are a few cursory but important points drawn from Cardinal Ladaria’s letter:

(1) The U.S. bishops are planning to address “the situation of Catholics in public office who support legislation allowing abortion, euthanasia” and “other moral evils”. The CDF has been asked to provide an “an informal review” of a draft on that issue.

(2) Cardinal Ladaria indicates that the 2002 CDF Doctrinal Note On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholic Life should be foundational for the draft, but points out that remarks by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who was then prefect for the CDF) in a 2004 private letter to Cardinal McCarrick “may be of assistance” in the draft’s preparation.

(3) It’s understood that there is a serious divide among the U.S. bishops over how to address this topic. The CDF has “advised that dialogue among the bishops be undertaken to preserve the unity of the episcopal conference in the face of disagreements over this controversial topic.” It recognizes (rightly, I think) that the work of formulating a “national policy” could be counter-productive and lead to “discord rather than unity” among Catholics.

(4) With that concern in mind, Cardinal Ladaria advises that the first stage of dialogue “take place among bishops…” Here is where the rubber meets the road, for Ladaria does not take a stance of “getting along is the most important thing,” but clearly says this dialogue must take place so the bishops “could agree as a Conference that support of pro-choice legislation is not compatible with Catholic teaching.” (In other words, Cardinal Ladaria indicates there is no wavering from message; the issue is more a matter of approach and implementation.) Further, the bishops should both discuss and agree to the teaching of the 2002 Doctrinal Note, which includes this:

When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forgo extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate). Such laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death. (par 4)

(5) Then, Ladaria says, “After this agreement is reached, the bishops could then move to implement the second stage,” which involves individual bishops reaching out to and engaging directly with those Catholic politicians “within their jurisdictions who adopt a pro-choice position” regarding legislation promoting and supporting abortion, euthanasia, and other moral evils. This dialogue has two goals: to better understand the exact position taken by a specific politician and to ascertain how well that politician actually understands Catholic teaching about said issues.

(6) After these dialogues (among bishops and then between bishops and politicians), the bishops as a whole may decide to “formulate a national policy on worthiness for communion”; if so, such a statement would need to “express a true consensus of the bishops on the matter,” while acknowledging the rights of bishops to act in their dioceses as they see fit.

(7) Finally, Cardinal Ladaria emphasizes that any USCCB statement that may be issued would not just focus on “one category of Catholics” but would “framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful… (cf. Doctrinal Note art. 4). All Catholics are conform their lives “to the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ as they prepare to receive the sacrament…”

So, what to make of this? First, while abortion and euthanasia have been front in center in the U.S. for quite some time, there are any number of other grave issues in play: “same sex” marriage, gender ideology, pornography, fornication, adultery, and, to quote from Gaudium et spes, “whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons…” (GS, 27). The Doctrinal Note also mentions “the freedom of parents regarding the education of their children” and religious liberty.

While abortion must been seen at the center of an expansive culture of death, it still is at the center for good reason, as Archbishop Cordileone explains in his recent “Pastoral Letter on the Human Dignity of the Unborn, Holy Communion, and Catholics in Public Life”:

Abortion is the axe laid to the roots of the tree of human rights: when our culture encourages the violation of life at its youngest and most vulnerable condition, other ethical norms cannot stand for long. …

Far from being “pre-occupied” with abortion, the Catholic Church provides a wide variety of medical, social, and educational services both here in the United States and throughout the world. Catholics champion various expressions of this discipleship: opposing racism, fighting for the rights of the oppressed, assisting the sick and the elderly, working for greater economic equality, and so on. Some say that we should devote our energies solely to “non-controversial” needs and keep quiet about abortion; we should concede that, unlike all these other issues, this is a “private matter.” But it is not. Indeed, the very existence of that growing child is the fruit of communion between two persons, and the mother and father are themselves part of a constellation of human relationships. All of these people are harmed to a greater or lesser degree by the act of ending the unborn child’s life.

It is for good reason, then, that the bishops of the United States speak of this as the “pre-eminent” political issue of our time and place “because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.”

Finally, back to Pelosi’s claim that this new Vatican document “basically said ‘don’t be divisive on the subject’.” She is correct—but not in the way she apparently thinks, which is, “Don’t rock the boat. Leave the politicians alone. Don’t make a scene!” In fact, to the contrary, the CDF letter strongly indicates that the bishops are to get it together and with a clear, unified voice proclaim that “support of pro-choice legislation is not compatible with Catholic teaching”, and then follow that to its logical conclusion. As Abp. Cordileone writes:

In the case of public figures who profess to be Catholic and promote abortion, we are not dealing with a sin committed in human weakness or a moral lapse: this is a matter of persistent, obdurate, and public rejection of Catholic teaching. This adds an even greater responsibility to the role of the Church’s pastors in caring for the salvation of souls.

There will always be controversy over Church teaching. But it needs to controversy generated by clarity and firm charity, not fog and weak-kneed fear.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Adam and Eve kept their own counsel when they ate the forbidden fruit. The Jews did their own thing when they built the golden calf, breaking a solemn blood covenant. The “Our Father” says: “Thy Kingdom come. Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” We pray this just before receiving the Eucharist. How many people really mean it?

  2. “CDF letter strongly indicates that the bishops are to get it together and with a clear, unified voice proclaim that support of pro-choice legislation is not compatible with Catholic teaching …”

    But take your time; no hurry. And if you do not come to agreement, well, the process is what counts.

    Fat chance our democrat hireling bishops will ever allow a Catholic agreement in the USCCB. Francis will make sure the hirelings prevail.

    • John you’re right. The fallacy of this process is predetermined by a strong number of bishops and Catholic politicians who are pro choice, and will likely remain such. To expect a “true consensus” is unrealistic. Cardinal Ladaria must know this. The appeal to consensus in order to preserve unity is a ruse. Moral doctrine cannot be decided by consensus. It’s the pope who is required to settle the issue by defending the faith.

      • He has yet to put on the armor of God. See “Catholic Register” for a report on his meeting with the president of Argentina.

      • Greetings, Fr. Morello:

        Though hope springs eternal, I and many others are still “waiting” for the Pope to properly answer the four courageous Cardinals’ Dubia. Based on this and other examples of an abject dereliction of duty by the Pope to stand up for the Faith and Morality as Required, my hope and prayers that he will do so this time will certainly not be accompanied by any breath holding.

        • Smart choice DV. At the start of this pontificate I sensed an agenda in play to radically change both structure and message of the Church. As 8 years transpired since his election my questioning has become virtual conviction. As I’ve said previously I’ll leave the integrity of his conscience to God’s just judgment, nevertheless judging by the effects of this pontificate, of which he as pontiff is responsible I see dissolution of doctrine on faith and morals, collapse of practice, and widespread despair countered by widespread apostasy in those who follow the agenda’s trend. Save your breath for the final battle if it should come during our lifetime. Know too Christ stands by those who remain faithful.

          • I often wonder how the Pharisees chatted among themselves as Jesus challenged their prioritising of the Law over and above the message Jesus was proclaiming.

  3. What is bound on earth is bound in Heaven…

    Like the “hard words” of Christ on His newfound followers in the Gospel of John, a general acclamation is as meaningless as a democratic majority of Pelosis, Kennedys, Bidens, and their ilk in remaking Catholicism’s tenets in their own image.

    Let’s hope the bishops think seriously of the clarifying premise of this column and reject the sophistry of the age.

  4. The time for still another installment of prolix documents by bishops and the Vatican that require endless scrying and parsing which never lead to action is over. No amount of political muscle and spin by apostate self-styled “Catholic” politicians like Biden, Pelosi, Sottomayor, AOC, and Fauci and apostate Democratic party bosses like Cupich and Tobin who fraudulently pose as cardinals changes the reality before God of their horrendous crimes and sacrileges. If “the CDF letter strongly indicates that the bishops are to get it together and with a clear, unified voice proclaim that ‘support of pro-choice legislation is not compatible with Catholic teaching’”, then they need to declare and impose excommunication latae sententiae. The time has come and in fact is long overdue for for what the pithy and ancient Roman phrase demands: “acta, non verba”

  5. How scriptural is this to allow this to go on? Do we really need to have a committee or even the bishops to interpret this? Isn’t this a scandal in itself to have to readdress this after all these years? Just speak the truth in love. The reality is it’s a serious sin to receive communion unworthily. Every kid who has ever went through Catholic grade school knows this. It is not a matter of interpretation that needs to be debated by bishops. Diplomacy needs to end and we need to be direct and speak the truth.

  6. Fifty years.

    Scores of millions of children killed in America.

    Hundreds of millions more around the world.

    And still the bishops cannot agree?

    What am I not seeing? What can possibly viewed as “controversial” about this question?

    With bishops like these, who needs heretics?

    Thank you, Mr. Olson, for taking the Catholic Church’s teachings more seriously than do many of our bishops.

  7. Further clarification by the Bishops may be required to define abortion as a sin, the eternal penalties associated with the stages of sin, with the reminder to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Should the Bishops chose to do so then perhaps that would clear the path, ignite the fuse for another Great Awakening in the Apostolic Tradition.

  8. Pelosi may be confused about what the letter actually says but she’s not the only one. Cardinal Muller and George Weigel (EWTN The World Over, May 13) do not seem too happy with it. Ed Condon (pillarcatholic) seems to be more optimistic. Cupich and Tobin’s apparent influence does not inspire confidence. Time will tell but meanwhile the so-called MSM will go with Pelosi’s version.

  9. All of the detail that Mr. Olsen quotes is certainly true. But let’s cut to the heart of the matter. Canon 915 is not complicated. It is clear that a number of pro-abortion politicians have violated this canon. It is clear that no bishops in this country have applied this canon to those politicians. It is also clear that a number of bishops and cardinals have stated that they definitely will not apply it.
    So there is clarity. Not sure what the reference to “weak-kneed fear” is.

  10. Pelosi, Biden, et al. have decided to reject Catholic teaching. Is this not self-excommunication? Is it not their affirmation that they do not belong to the Church? It is clear that they feel a need to appear to be Catholics in good standing – let me guess … because they think that it might influence the “Catholic” vote to be more in their favour? They fear losing a vote more than losing Church’s membership so what’s the issue? The Bishops do not have to excommunicate; they only have to accept that these politicians have decided to leave the Church and it’s requirements and, accordingly, are not eligible for the sacraments.

  11. Word from Foggy Bottom. “So the bishops could agree as a Conference that support of pro-choice legislation is not compatible with Catholic teaching” (Ladaria quoted by Olson). Promising. Thoroughly researched by editor Olson emphasis on an optimistic outcome. That is, in the best of outcomes. Although it will be assessed by significant numbers in context of Amoris Laetitia specifically mitigating circumstances and freedom of conscience. Optimism may wane. Examples 5 “To understand the exact position taken by a specific politician”. 6 “Such a statement would need to express a true consensus of the bishops on the matter”. 7 “Focus not on one category of Catholics but framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful”. 7 is the key. There are other issues at play suggested by Ladaria and succinctly by Olson, however be assured some bishops, powerful cardinals included Cupich, Tobin, Gregory will raise the issues of climate change, environment, systemic racism, transgender equality. Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s opinion is that the process has the features of an ongoing perhaps interminable debate on a clear cut moral issue. As to Nancy Pelosi’s view of divisiveness, a very shrewd veteran politician who reads into statements better than most. Cardinal Ladaria’s “could agree” translates may agree not to agree, in which case compromise affirmation of Pres Biden’s position as well as affirmation of condemnation of those who support “pro-choice legislation not compatible with Catholic teaching” actually is universal recognition of the former since a negative cannot cancel an affirmative.

  12. Thanks for the clarification of the instruction from the Vatican to the USCCB. It is important that Catholics realize that the teaching applies to all not just publicly obstinate politicians. It is not surprising that Nancy Pelosi would read only what supported her position in this directive and miss the correction to all who support positions that are not in compliance with Church teaching. Everyone does that to a certain extent, but reading to comprehend the entirety of the teaching is important before making such a self-serving comment as to be “pleased” with the statement from the Vatican. One then wonders how much of the legislation she supports or rejects is based on a “lite” reading of the proposed bills.

  13. For truth and clarity we need a list of things which make people UNworthy of receiving communion. This needs to be universally applicable to all. If nations leaders claim to be catholic and ALSO receive communion unworthily, this is extremely scandalous to us other sinners. It makes the whole concept of unworthiness nonexistent. For that matter any and everyone should be allowed to receive communion if people who support abortion legislation are allowed to communion.

  14. Mr. Olson, I sincerely hope that your interpretation of Cardinal Ladaria’s letter and prediction of its effect is right. I continue to believe that it is intended to put the brakes on any concerted effort to confront Biden, Pelosi and the rest. For Pete’s sake, why do the bishops need to “agree as a Conference that support of pro-choice legislation is not compatible with Catholic teaching.” I am sure that Cupich, Gregory and McElroy will happily go that far and, in fact have said as much. What good has that done? Action is required now and is long overdue. Time will tell. If, by the end of the year, the bishops have not taken any serious steps (that means going beyond issuing statements of concern) then I think you will have to admit you were wrong.

    • “If, by the end of the year, the bishops have not taken any serious steps (that means going beyond issuing statements of concern) then I think you will have to admit you were wrong.”

      Yes, I have to agree. Perhaps I am too optimistic in my reading of the text. Alas, I fear that decades of uneven and even poor leadership in the U.S., combined with the ambiguities and confusions accompanying (ahem) this pontificate, make it that much harder for even the most outspoken bishops to get traction.

  15. As much as I appreciate Archbishop Cordileone’s recent statements on politicians who support abortion and the Eucharist, it is fair to ask why he not done anything other than issue pastoral letters and warnings all these years. He has been archbishop of San Francisco since 2012! He reminds one of a kid walking to the edge of the diving board and going back. At some point you have to take the plunge or just go home.

    What real purpose, other than yet again delaying the application of discipline, does step 5 of Cardinal Ladaria’s plan serve? Biden, Pelosi, Durbin, etc. know very well what the Church teaches on abortion and they have defied it for years (decades, in many cases!) with impunity. Likewise, Ladaria’s seventh step is also intended to dilute the message. Of course, no one in a state of mortal sin should receive Holy Communion and it is a scandal that bishops and most priests hardly ever make the point, but the specific issue of politicians advocating legalized murder surely requires special attention. It provides a good and necessary starting point for addressing the topic generally.

  16. All of this not calling a sin a sin is very frustrating to faithful Catholics. Ever since Vatican 11, Catholics without an informed conscience have convinced themselves their conscience rules!. How can we blame the bishops for the fix we are in that allow american liberal catholics to support abortion in their quest to move the church into the modern world, especially american women. Most do not read the scriptures and think the church is behind the times!. Most liberals have no concept of living to attain salvation.Rather they believe God loves them and their conscience rules!. There is little to no concept they are creatures and God is the Creator Who we owe obedience to.It takes some humility to acknowledge obedience to God, more than just Sunday Mass obligation.

  17. At some point, some sitting bishop is going to have to take the plunge and actually do something, either simply refusing Holy Communion or outright excommunicating a politician. Otherwise, all these documents just hang in the air, convicting the very people who issued them. The problem with these statements and documents is not so much that they are wrong, but that it never goes beyond that. It’s as if the statements apply to some theoretical bishops and politicians on Mars or Saturn, or, better yet, in another galaxy where the bishops here can claim that they have no jurisdiction– but never to an actual bishop or actual politician. They may as well add “this is only a test” to the end of the documents. “If this had been an actual instruction, a real politician would have been denied Communion.”

    Obviously, I’ll go with Carl Olson’s take over Nancy Pelosi’s any day, but the posturing can’t continue forever. We need a bishop to say, “I am the bishop of my diocese and I am responsible to God for the spiritual well-being of my diocese, and I am taking this action regardless of how popular or unpopular it may be inside or outside my diocese.” If unanimity among bishops is required, nothing will ever be done and the can will keep getting kicked up the road.

  18. Some Bishops have excommunicated some Catholic politicians because of their pro abortion activities. Bishop Paprocki excommunicated Durbin and Bishop Tomas Tobin of Rhode Island excommunicated Patrick Kennedy. Both Bishops were vilified by the Msm. Yes, some of our Bishops are afraid not only of personal attack but of causing disunity. The latter, disunity, is red herring. The sides have already been drawn among the laity. Also there is a small group, Gregory, McElroy, Tobin of New Jersey and Cupich who are simply dishonest. They may well be beyond the help of prayer because of the great evils they support. But for our many good Bishops I pray fervently.

  19. This whole debate goes back many more years than most people think. Kennedy compound n 1964. Catholic priests helped the Kennedys, and others, fashion their personally against but publicly for support of abortion. Then, later on, Governor Cuomo carried the same argument to the halls of Notre Dame University with a speech he gave there. If at any time over the past 57 years the bishops of the U.S. would have excommunicated Catholic politicians the first time they voted for a pro-abortion bill I don’t think we would be in the mess we’re in, either as a church, or even, partly, as a nation.
    The church must find a backbone and do what is right as Christ’s representative on the earth. Stand up for the TRUTH and let the chips fall where the may.

  20. In the articles that I read, Durban and Kennedy were instructed not to receive communion. At least in Bishop Tobin’s case, he also instructed his priests not to give communion to Kennedy. There is no mention of either Durban or Kennedy being excommunicated.
    Occasionally we hear of a bishop saying that people, through their actions, have automatically excommunicated themselves. This is not the same as a bishop using his authority to excommunicate someone, and can be a way for the bishop to avoid exercising his responsibility.

  21. Diane above – “Both bishops [Paprocki and Tomas Tobin] were vilified by the MSM”. Can anyone doubt that the so-called MSM would be twice as hostile today? Bishops like Cordileone, Paprocki, Tomas Tobin and Olmsted stick their necks out and deserve our support.

  22. The author lost all credibility in the sub headline referring to the Speaker of the House as “Minority Leader.” I’m sure the Speaker, like the President, continue to examine their consciences. How much the bishops as a whole have a right to interfere with that process is an open question on which no consensus exists.

  23. I would note that ex the moral arguments on this issue that politicians are commonly deliberately disingenuous on difficult issues or feign ignorance of details to avoid engaging in meaningful explanation of their positions. It is in their nature and, regrettably, to be expected as a near universal condition. This is the outcome of our political system which has grown to expect all things at the expense of addressing difficult issues with unpopular but necessary solutions. Abortion is one of those questions that causes politicians to twist themselves into pretzels to avoid saying something definitive that might cost them a future election. In the case of Catholic politicians, the bishops do them no favors by failure to make clear the danger to their immoral souls and that most serious of final consequences.

  24. “No Catholic in good conscience can favor abortion.”

    Madam Congresswoman – precisely what part of that statement do you find difficult to understand? Perhaps I can help.

  25. Pelosi’s famous remark about Obamacare may have been taken out of complete context but not the essential message. She again starkly revealed the nature of her public misguidance. Even “away” from the “controversy,” I doubt if she, any other member of Congress, or any layperson could make much sense of the thousands of pages that boiled down to the essence of what she knew full well she was steering: Power to the regressive bureaucrats who will employ the words to craft administrative directives supportive of dictatorial government control over individual health; advance abortion and euthanasia; and increasingly gather citizen information, among other evils. The idea was that the public could not possibly understand the massive content. Pelosi continues in this vein of deception and distortion in myriad ways.

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