When it comes to reproductive rights, San Francisco’s archbishop would seem to be, as the saying goes, more Catholic than the pope.
In a May 20 letter to the faithful, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for supporting abortion rights. Citing “the grave evil she is perpetrating, the scandal she is causing, and the danger to her own soul she is risking,” Cordileone said he has no choice but to prohibit his congresswoman from receiving Holy Communion at Mass until she repudiates her support for abortion rights.
That marked a new milestone in a long-simmering feud between the two powerful Catholics on the question of abortion rights.
In an appearance Tuesday on MSNBC, Pelosi responded to Cordileone’s declaration and said that she has observant family members who oppose abortion rights, but that they respect one another’s views.
“I don’t respect us foisting it onto others,” Pelosi said of using abortion as a litmus test of a person’s faith.
As a disciplinary matter, Cordileone’s declaration that Pelosi must be denied Communion also pits him against his boss. Pope Francis has made it clear that he disapproves of weaponizing the sacrament of Communion against elected officials, stating last year that it “is not the reward of saints, but is the bread of sinners.”
Cordileone appears to disagree, but rebuking Pelosi is hardly his first foray into controversy.
Having served as archbishop of San Francisco—the archdiocese covers the city proper as well as Marin and San Mateo counties—since 2012, and as the Bishop of Oakland before that, the 65-year-old Cordileone is a theological hardliner strongly opposed to contraception and hostile to LGBTQ+ rights, an outlier in a city with a long history of inclusiveness and churches that welcome LGBTQ+ parishioners.
Believed to affiliate with Opus Dei, a movement of the Church associated with extreme forms of piety, Cordileone is also a proponent of the Tridentine Mass. That is the practice, phased out after the reformist 1960s church council known as Vatican II, in which Mass is celebrated in Latin rather than in a community’s vernacular tongue.
Shortly after his installation as archbishop of San Francisco, Cordileone was arrested for a drunk-driving offense in his hometown of San Diego.
During his tenure as archbishop of San Francisco, Cordileone has grappled with with the decades-long sexual-abuse scandals that have seized the church, overseeing an $87 million settlement. But his positions have also angered Catholics in the city: In 2015, for example, Cordileone added morality clauses restricting homosexuality, birth control and other practices at odds with church teachings into the handbooks of Catholic schools, sparking pushback by many teachers and families.
More recently, Cordileone chose not to get vaccinated against Covid, and during the pandemic’s lockdown phase, flouted city restrictions on indoor gatherings to allow public Mass. (The City Attorney’s office sent a cease-and-desist letter to halt this. A Covid outbreak was later traced to an unlawful wedding held at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in North Beach.)
In 2020, as protesters toppled a statue of Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary whose treatment of indigenous people has been strongly criticized, Cordileone rallied to the polarizing, 18th-century saint’s defense and performed an exorcism at the site of a toppled statue in San Rafael.
With respect to reproductive rights, Cordileone has made waves in the past. In September 2021, without naming any names, he wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post condemning “self-professed Catholics” who take pro-choice positions.
The leaked Supreme Court draft indicating that Roe v. Wade may soon be overturned put advocates for abortion rights on the defensive.
Pelosi, a practicing Catholic who once famously said she prayed for former President Donald Trump, has made her pro-choice stance well-known during her 35 years representing the city named after the same saint as Pope Francis himself. In a request for comment, The Standard was told that “Out of respect for Speaker Pelosi, the Archbishop will not be doing interviews with secular media.”
This isn’t the first time that conservative Catholic bishops have threatened to deny Communion to high-profile Catholic officials who support reproductive rights. In 2004, then-presidential candidate John Kerry—the first Catholic major-party nominee since Roe v. Wade—was singled out for his pro-choice stance. Several bishops have criticized Joe Biden on similar grounds, although Pope Francis has also called the president a “good Catholic.”
Notably, this criticism has not been consistently applied to politicians who espouse other positions at odds with church teachings. While the Catholic Church strongly opposes capital punishment, for example, conservative-leaning Catholics who hold public office and advocate for the death penalty have not been so publicly targeted for their doctrinal lapses—a point Pelosi mentioned on MSNBC.
In Catholicism, the sacrament of Holy Communion is theologically complex. Whereas many Protestant denominations maintain that the rite merely symbolizes Jesus breaking bread with the twelve Apostles during the Last Supper, Catholic dogma goes further, stating that a priest’s intercession turns the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The sacrament is the central rite of Catholic worship, and is considered an obligation for Catholics.
In other words, Communion is a very big deal. Under canon law, exclusion from Holy Communion is reserved for rare circumstances, such as when an individual has been excommunicated or perseveres in “manifest grave sin.” Indeed, in his letter to Pelosi, Archbishop Cordileone quotes canon law to accuse the politician of just that. But whatever one’s theological orientation, it would seem that moral judgment can be highly selective.Peter-Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected].