On May 1st, the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker, Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone of San Francisco issued a 17-page Pastoral Letter, titled “Before I Formed You in the Womb I Knew You”, focusing on “Human Dignity of the Unborn, Holy Communion, and Catholics in Public Life”.
Archbishop Cordileone spoke this week with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, about that letter, as well as about recent remarks by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, news from the White House regarding Roe v. Wade, and the upcoming USCCB Spring General Assembly in June.
CWR: Let’s begin with the background and reason for your May 1st pastoral letter. Was it because of the Biden administration? Or the specific situation in San Francisco?
Archbishop Cordileone: Yes, I’ve known for a long time, being here in San Francisco and the particular situation here, that I needed to do something about this issue because there’s so much confusion in the minds of people. And even among Catholics, I’ve realized for quite some time, it’s a matter of needing to be more effective in teaching certain basic principles.
First of all, what it means for a Catholic in receiving Holy Communion. We’ve seen the Pew Research Center study [“Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ”, August 2019] that shows the majority of Catholics nowadays don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is very alarming, but it’s no surprise this coincides with the decline in understanding what it means to receive Holy Communion. People see it as a sort of table fellowship—that everyone’s welcome to the table, which of course is a very Protestant understanding.
But it’s not our Catholic belief at all. So, I needed to do something to teach more clearly that this is truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, by which he makes his sacrifice on Calvary present to us here and now. And that the timeless teaching of the Church—from the beginning down to the present time—about being properly disposed to receive Holy Communion, believing what the Church believes and living one’s life in conformity with that, because the sacrament of our communion means that we are uniting our sacrifice with Christ. We died with him by dying to sin. I knew that I needed to teach more clearly on that because the idea that someone should not be receiving Communion doesn’t make any sense unless one understands this basic teaching.
Also, there was the need to clarify teachings about the evil of abortion, because [abortion] has become such a standard part of our day-to-day life. Nowadays, people are just sort of blind to the horrendous evil that it is. I knew I had to lay out those principles. So I decided some time ago to issue a pastoral letter such as this … so I’ve been feeling some urgency for quite some time. I hadn’t had a chance to do anything earlier. And, yes, I admit the election of President Biden did add all the more to the urgency. I began working on it last year and have had it in the works for quite some time.
CWR: And it came at a time when there have been a number of statements and public remarks now from various bishops, including Archbishop Naumann, Archbishop Aquila, and Bishop Olmsted, among others. Your Letter provides a very comprehensive approach. Is this something you talked about with some of these other bishops? Or is this something you decided you were going to do on your own?
Archbishop Cordileone: In the early stages? I had conversations with bishops who are concerned about the situation, but not really in planning it initially. As we got closer towards finishing it and were getting ready to roll it out, and I saw other bishops issuing similar statements, as you mentioned … I did let some bishops know that I would be publishing [the Letter] when I saw that we were kind of on the same track. But in terms of its initial conception, that purely came from my own mind—I had collaboration in getting it drafted, but the idea was mine.
CWR: Since you released that letter, a number of things have happened. The CDF sent a letter to the U.S. bishops on May 7th; there were the recent remarks by Nancy Pelosi and then your statement responding to her And then there was a statement made by the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, saying that President Biden is “committed to codifying” Roe v. Wade. First, there’s been a lot of discussion about the CDF letter—what it means and what it might mean going forward, especially leading up to the June 16-18 USCCB Spring General Assembly? What is your basic take on reading it?
Archbishop Cordileone: The way I read the letter is that it is giving some caution, but also affirming what we’re doing. [Cardinal Ladaria] speaks about the need for bishops to dialogue among themselves, to help maintain unity. And that there be a consensus before developing a national policy. But to that, I say, we’re not talking about a national policy. We’re talking about a document that will be a teaching document—reaffirming the Church’s teaching and emphasizing the bishop’s role and responsibilities and authority in this area.
And, I’d say the bishops have been dialoguing about this for a very long time, about 20 years now, because at the beginning of the letter, he makes reference to the  letter to the bishops from Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the CDF, about guiding us on this issue. And Cardinal Ladaria reminds us of the principles; he instructs us to use those principles in discerning our own document.
Well, those principles are affirming the kind of basic pastoral approach that we’ve been discussing all along—that for a Catholic prominent in public life who is supporting abortion or euthanasia, [and] Cardinal Ladaria says that promoting those is formal cooperation and a grave sin. So his letter is very clear, of course. So Cardone Ladaria is affirming this very clearly: that it is formal cooperation and a grave sin.
So the bishop has to have conversations to help the person understand that and come to a change of heart and to change course in their life. And if repeated efforts prove fruitless then the bishop is to declare that the person not be admitted to Communion. I see Cardinal Ladaria’s letter as affirming what we’ve been doing all along. We’ve been discussing this, dialoguing about it, for at least 20 years. And now I sense a growing sense of urgency among the bishops to do something very clear and strong, that is pastoral and clear teaching about this. So, I think the letter is affirming what our plan is.
CWR: Your comment about dialoguing now for 20 years leads to this question about Nancy Pelosi and her statement, “I think I can use my own judgment on that,” referring to receiving Holy Communion. Is she really open to authentic dialogue? Can’t we conclude that many of these calls for dialogue have not resulted in positive change at all?
Archbishop Cordileone: Well, first of all, when I mentioned dialogue in reference to Cardinal Ladaria’s letter, that was referring to dialogue among bishops. Regarding dialogue, as bishops, with [pro-abortion] Catholic leaders in political and secular life on the national level, I think we’ve pretty much reached the point of exhaustion. But there’s also dialogue to take place one-on-one. A lot of bishops do have those dialogues. I myself, personally, have not come to the end of the road. I have had those conversations, but I’m not at the end of the road of that yet.
But I do think on the national level, we are reaching a breaking point. And I think the bishops need to stand together and to be very clear and definitive about the horrendous evil that abortion is. And no one can favor this, favor access to abortion and think they’re a Catholic in good conscience.
As I said, in my statement in response to Speaker Pelosi’s comments that we cannot judge them about receiving Communion—but what about the 66 million babies murdered in their mother’s wombs? There’s not a judgment involved there; it’s a fact. In the last 50 years in the United States alone, 66 million babies have been murdered in their mother’s wombs, and how many more lives have been scarred because of that? So this is a horrendous evil; we have to look it in the face and admit it if our country is going to be rid of this very deep and painful scar.
CWR: My sense from what you’re saying about the upcoming USCCB meeting, is that you don’t anticipate there being a national policy statement. Rather, you hope there will be an affirmation for individual bishops, like yourself and others we’ve mentioned, to be more steadfast in making strong statements in their respective dioceses, that there will be a strong sense they’re going to have strong support from other bishops?
Archbishop Cordileone: Yes. That’s what I would hope to come from this. … In my pastoral letter, I was just clearly laying out Church teaching. So there’s no argument about that. Now, when it comes to applying it in a particular situation, there are a number of factors that have to be taken in consideration. And each bishop has to make that decision at the time that he does, and in conformity with his own conscience. So I would hope that this document will give support to bishops who are going to make a hard decision and be very strong on this. … It’s very unpleasant to do, but if our conscience is such that we have to do it, then we do need the support of our brother bishops. And each bishop, I think, needs to respect the other bishop in whichever decision he makes, that he’s doing it in conformity with his own conscience.
CWR: You make a very strong statement in your Pastoral Letter, where you re you say that because we’re dealing with public figures and public examples of cooperation of moral, evil, this correction can also “take the public form of exclusion from the reception of Holy Communion.” And a bit later, you write, “I tremble that if I do not forthrightly challenge Catholics under my pastoral care who advocate for abortion, both they and I will have to answer to God for innocent blood.” In terms of how this might work out in practical terms, are you directing the priests of San Francisco that if Nancy Pelosi or a known pro-abortion Catholic politician comes to receive Communion, that they’re supposed to take the specific action of refusing them Communion? Or is this something that you leave this to their individual judgment at that moment? How do you see that working out in practical terms?
Archbishop Cordileone: First of all, I see this pastoral letter as a very clear effort of mine to warn people who are favoring the abortion of the seriousness of the situation. So that’s already acting as a warning with regard to any specific individuals. Again, those conversations have to take place. And, at a certain point, if they don’t bear fruit, taking into consideration a number of other factors as well, the bishop would have to decide whether or not to make that move. And I haven’t reached the end of that process yet. That’s still a work in progress.
CWR: Any further thoughts that you’d like to share?
Archbishop Cordileone: I’m very grateful to so many of Catholics have been so strong and visible leaders in the pro-life movement, who are not just advocating for life in the womb, but are truly pro-life because, as they say, the right response to a woman with a crisis pregnancy is not killing her baby but surrounding her with love and support. And our Catholic people are doing so much wonderful work in the pro-life, crisis pregnancy clinics, giving that woman the support she needs to make a happy and life-giving choice—all that they’re doing to help women and others in their circle of relationships, who are scarred by an abortion experience, to heal. It’s really only the Catholic Church that is doing this. I’m so grateful to, and proud of, our Catholic people who are showing the true face of what it means to be pro-life. Please keep it up!
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