In the past few months, several Catholic bishops have issued statements on the question of whether to publicly deny pro-abortion politicians the Eucharist. I am grateful to all my brother bishops who have courageously spoken out on this thorny subject. When bishops share according to their conscience and listen to others' points of view, they foster genuine dialogue—a necessary step on the path to unity.
I would therefore like to respond to Bishop Robert McElroy’s recent essay, “The Eucharist is being weaponized for political ends. This must not happen.” His title suggests that political motives are driving the bishops' current discussion of pro-abortion politicians and worthy reception. But while I don’t presume to know what’s in the mind and heart of my brother bishops, I am not motivated by political ends, nor are those with whom I have discussed the subject. Our concern is not political but pastoral; it is for the salvation of souls. This issue has political ramifications, but that is not an excuse to shy away at this crucial moment.
Bishop McElroy is also concerned that excluding pro-abortion politicians from communion will weaken the unity of the Church. Jesus prayed that Christians might all be one (John 17:21), and this is an obligation we must all take seriously. Yet he also said, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51). Speaking the truth at times appears to create division, but often it simply exposes the division that already exists. If Catholics cannot agree on protecting the helpless unborn, then our unity is superficial at best and illusory at worst.
Bishop McElroy then critiques what he calls a “theology of unworthiness.” He argues that those who would deny pro-abortion politicians communion are applying an “extremely expansive” litmus test that “applies sanctions very selectively and inconsistently.” Is this the case?
Canon Law states, “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession” (CIC 916). As abortion is one of the few sins that carries an automatic excommunication (see CIC 1398), there is no doubt that a politician who actively protects abortion and strives to make it more accessible also risks his or her salvation. It surely is not “expansive” to put this evil in the category of grave sin.
It is fair to question whether we are cherry-picking by focusing on abortion. Why aren’t we seeking eucharistic sanctions for other evils that are rampant in society? The answer is that while there are many serious sins that diminish our worthiness to receive the Eucharist, only the gravest sins extinguish that worthiness entirely. As a body of bishops we have read “the signs of the times” (Gaudium et Spes), recognized that abortion is the great evil of our culture, and called it out as such for decades. Back in 1998 our conference named abortion a “preeminent threat” and in 2019 we reaffirmed that the “threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself.” Pro-abortion political leaders have not heeded these calls, and now we seek to apply the last remaining and most severe medicinal option we have: eucharistic sanctions.
Bishop McElroy examines the arguments for denying communion to pro-abortion politicians and asks, “How many Catholic political leaders of either party could pass that test?” I would suggest that this is the wrong question. Jesus was not interested in numbers, but in the salvation of souls. A better question might be, “Have I done absolutely everything I can as a bishop to try to bring all pro-abortion Catholic politicians in my flock back into a state of grace?”
James S. Wall is the bishop of Gallup, New Mexico.
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