A True Pastor
On Archbishop Cordileone's Pastoral Letter on the unborn, Communion & Catholic politicians
Archbishop Cordileone’s May 1st letter, “Before I Formed You in the Womb I Knew You: A Pastoral Letter on the Human Dignity of the Unborn, Holy Communion, and Catholics in Public Life” (https://sfarchdiocese.org/inthewomb), is pastoral in the truest sense of the word: the archbishop is tending his flock, leading, sternly encouraging them in the right direction. His tone is not one of shame or condescension, but of thoughtful, clear guidance. He leads his readers on an intelligent and intelligible discourse on innate human dignity and our responsibility as Christians to acknowledge the inestimable value of human life at every stage — and thus to live our Catholic faith with true integrity. What follows is my digest of the Letter.
Section 1: The Human Foundation – Law & Science
Cordileone begins with the first, most basic of rights: the right to life, the foundation of the Declaration of Independence. The right to life is not rooted in religion but can be agreed upon by all citizens. Any democracy that does not proclaim this fundamental right is built upon sand. Without ensured protection of life no other right can stand. Possession of Christian faith, which affirms that all people are created in God’s image and likeness, only deepens one’s resolve to protect and ensure that this right is never denied.
Here we meet the familiar counterpoint, the attempt to distinguish when life begins. Cordileone provides multiple resources stating that human life begins with fertilization, at conception (https://www.princeton. edu/~prolife/articles/embryoquotes2.html). When egg and sperm meet, a unique human organism begins to develop and grow, and life has begun.
Understanding that life is the most essential right, and that each life begins at fertilization, Cordileone naturally concludes: “We are all called to oppose abortion because we acknowledge the human being’s right to life, the unique human identity of each living, developing embryo from the moment of conception, and the horrendous violence of the procedure itself.”
Section 2: Cooperation in Moral Evil
Here, Cordileone’s point is again clear. Abortion is a moral evil. Yet, it is never an action undertaken only by the mother. Abortion casts a web of tangential culpability, reaching those who encourage or counsel others to turn to abortion, assist with or pay for the procedure, and vote or provide financial support for candidates, legislation, or organizations that make it easier to procure an abortion. This cooperation is never morally permissible or justified.
Section 3: The Question of Reception of the Holy Eucharist
Receiving Communion is the pinnacle of Catholic life. It is also a public act, in which we profess our faith and affirm our commitment to Church teachings. Though each of us is unworthy of the gift, we are encouraged to receive Communion often and with the resolve that we will strive to become worthy of what we are given. When we strive and stumble, falling into sin, we are righted through the sacrament of confession.
But Archbishop Cordileone cautions that we cannot confuse lapses into sin with denial and contradiction of Church teachings. “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.”
Section 4: Catholics in Public Life
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil” (CCC #2284). Catholics in public life help shape the country’s laws and values. Support of abortion in contradiction to the Catholic faith yields scandal that is two-fold. First, actions directly enable others to sin by making abortion more accessible and acceptable. Second, if prominent Catholics are not challenged by their pastors, all those watching, Catholic or not, will believe that the Church does not enforce her teachings and holds them loosely, with indifference. Cordileone here establishes the reason for his letter: it is his pastoral duty, one that he takes with the utmost seriousness. For him not to speak, not to address the issue of Catholics in public life while we have a president who does not respect the Catholic teachings he claims to profess, would be scandalous.
Finally, Cordileone addresses whether or not to deny Communion. First, he encourages any Catholic who cooperates in abortion to speak with his parish priest or bishop. If the conversation is fruitless, denial of Communion — a truly “bitter medicine” — can be called for. Ideally this is a temporary measure to illuminate the path back to communion with the Church and with God. But the responsibility is not solely on the shoulders of the local priest or bishop: “If you find that you are unwilling or unable to abandon your advocacy for abortion, you should not come forward to receive Holy Communion. To publicly affirm the Catholic faith while at the same time publicly rejecting one of its most fundamental teachings is simply dishonest. Heeding this perennial call to conversion is the only way to live the Catholic faith with integrity.”
Archbishop Cordileone’s pastoral letter is clear and precise. Abortion violates an inherent, essential tenet of natural law. How can any life be protected if the most vulnerable lives are so freely and easily discarded? If we Catholics do not affirm and uphold Church teachings but publicly deny and work against them, how can we willingly receive Communion? To do so is dishonest, deceitful, and sinful.
But there is always a path back to God, back to Communion. Cordileone makes this abundantly clear. He emphasizes conversion, confession, penance, and contrition. He provides practical resources for anyone tangled in the sticky web of abortion. This is what a pastor does. He meets his people where they are and shows them the path home.
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