San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrates Easter Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, April 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

When San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone announced last month that he was barring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving communion over her support for abortion rights, the move was widely viewed as an escalation of the Catholic hierarchy’s campaign against pro-choice Catholic Democrats and liberals.

The move by Cordileone, a leader of the culture war wing of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), deployed what has been called the sacramental “nuclear option” against the third highest-ranking official in the federal government and the second most prominent Catholic after President Biden. His move also came as abortion opponents are riding high on signs that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision may soon be overturned. At the same time, Biden and the Democrats are mired low in the polls, with Republicans predicted to sweep Congress in the midterms. Abortion foes like Cordileone are looking to capitalize on that momentum to enact state laws outlawing abortion.

But it increasingly appears that Cordileone may have misjudged the impact of his edict, not just in the sphere of secular politics but inside the Catholic Church itself. In the weeks since Cordileone made his announcement – complete with a major media push and a marketing campaign to enlist allies – fewer than two dozen of the more than 270 active Catholic bishops in the United States have signaled support for his edict.

A week after Cordileone’s move, Pope Francis named 21 new cardinals, 16 of whom will have the powerful role of voting for a pope whenever there is a conclave. The lone American among that group was San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy. McElroy comes from a lower-ranking diocese in Cordileone’s own state and could be seen as the polar opposite of Cordileone in his approach to ministry.

The cardinal-designate from San Diego has long pushed for civility and engagement on public policy debates. He has also said that calling abortion the “preeminent priority” for Catholics in America, as the U.S. hierarchy has advised, is “a distortion of Catholic teaching” because it singles out one issue to the exclusion of other equally critical ones. “The Eucharist is being weaponized and deployed as a tool in political warfare. This must not happen,” McElroy wrote last year.

Cordileone, on the other hand, has been an in-your-face conservative since he was named to San Francisco by former Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. In a departure from the low-key style of his predecessors, Cordileone used the cultural life of one of America’s most liberal cities as a foil for his conservative blasts against gay rights, abortion, and other issues. He has been no less confrontational when it came to Francis, who was elected pope in 2013. Cordileone has repeatedly questioned Francis’s push for a more open and consultative Catholicism. In 2018, when a right-wing Italian archbishop named Carlo Maria Viganò issued a manifesto declaring that Francis had ignored his warnings about abuse by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and should resign, Cordileone quickly and publicly vouched for Viganò’s integrity. Although the manifesto was full of false claims and baseless accusations, Cordileone has never expressed regret for his support of Viganò.

Nothing exemplifies the difference between Francis and Cordileone better than the fact that Cordileone’s cathedral used automated water sprinklers to keep homeless people away from the church while Pope Francis had showers for the homeless built under the colonnade in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.

More recently, Cordileone has defied the pontiff’s directions on everything from getting vaccinated against Covid-19 to curbing the use of the old Latin Rite mass, which has become a breeding ground for right-wing Catholics who oppose the pope. This summer, Cordileone is scheduled to host a traditionalist liturgical conference in San Francisco that will include a prominent role for a Latin Mass scholar, Dom Alcuin Reid, who was illicitly ordained a priest in a secret service in Europe last month.

Cordileone was a prime mover in a push last year to have the USCCB adopt a national policy that would have declared Biden, only the second Catholic in history to hold the nation’s highest office, unfit to receive communion. Francis repeatedly said he did not want bishops to approach the issue that way and he had his top doctrinal official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, send a letter asking the bishops to take a step back from the brink. Cordileone and his allies insisted they push ahead and the divided hierarchy eventually settled on a toothless compromise statement.

McElroy’s appointment as cardinal was certainly in the works well before Cordileone’s announcement about barring Pelosi from communion, but the timing and tenor of the pope’s announcement could not have been more pointed. “It is a loud and clear message for the Church in the United States” tweeted Fr. Antonio Spadaro, an Italian Jesuit who is a close advisor to Francis.

Whether that message has been received is an open question. Francis has been pope for less than a decade and has yet to appoint enough bishops to compensate for the nearly four decades of conservative appointments by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Church insiders have estimated that perhaps one-quarter of the U.S. hierarchy is unrelentingly set against Francis and his agenda – “just waiting for him to die,” as one senior prelate put it. Another quarter are not necessarily on board with the Francis pontificate, but they won’t publicly oppose him.

By announcing his edict so publicly, Cordileone effectively threw down the gauntlet to his colleagues, daring each of them to join him or be dismissed as a sacramental squish. Cordileone’s ruling technically applies only to Pelosi within the bounds of his San Francisco archdiocese, where Pelosi resides; but some of his allies insist that other bishops must also bar Pelosi from communion if she approaches a church in their diocese.

“Now may every bishop follow the lead of the Archbishop Cordileone,” tweeted Texas Bishop Joseph Strickland, a conservative ally of Cordileone. Other Cordileone fans also fanned the flames, with many praising him as a “faithful shepherd” and “a bishop with a backbone” in ostensible contrast to those other wishy-washy churchmen. “Either it is right to bar Nancy Pelosi from Communion, in which case other bishops should follow the Cordileone decree; or it is wrong, in which case other bishops should protest,” said Phil Lawler, a longtime conservative commentator. “This cannot be just a matter of local policy.”

In essence, the San Francisco archbishop has set the standard for what it means to be a faithful Catholic bishop and a faithful Catholic politician. To be pro-life is now to be pro-Cordileone. Anything less makes you unworthy to receive communion.

If the abortion battles move from the federal to the statehouse level in a post-Roe world, then bishops everywhere might be pressured by the Catholic right to bar local elected officials who back abortion rights. Few bishops would relish that forever war, but it seems to be inevitable. After Colorado sought to pass a bill to ensure abortion rights should Roe be overturned, the bishops of that state – which is a locus of conservative Catholic opposition to Francis – asked all Catholic politicians who supported the bill to refrain from receiving communion because their action “facilitates the killing of innocent unborn babies.” Interestingly, three of those four Colorado bishops also said it was unethical to use Covid vaccines because they are derived from fetal cell lines — an argument that the Vatican has said is without merit.

However, the silence of the vast majority of bishops is one sign that Cordileone may have overreached. At least one of his colleagues has spoken out publicly. Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque – who worked under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Vatican’s doctrinal office in the 1990s – issued a clear rejoinder to Cordileone in a statement that noted the shooting massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde show that gun control is a “life issue” as well as capital punishment, global warming, universal health insurance, and adequate housing. Politicians who oppose church teaching on those issues would also need to be denied communion if a pastor denies communion to a public figure over abortion rights, he said. “Better, I think, to put the Eucharist in the hands of such Catholics in the hopes that one day soon they would put their hands to work on behalf of life, in defense of all life.”

Whether this episode will mark a tipping point toward the Francis approach and away from the longstanding culture war stance of the U.S. hierarchy remains uncertain. Abortion rights will be just one of many forces at work in the midterm elections in November. But it is another election a week later that will provide a better clue as to where the bishops really stand. That is when the American hierarchy will gather for their annual business meeting in Baltimore to choose a new slate of leaders to guide the conference for the next three years. Church observers also have their eye on another impending vote: the possibility of a conclave to elect a new pope, a scenario that has been increasingly talked about as the 85-year-old Francis has been slowed by ailments and age.

With his action barring Pelosi from communion, Archbishop Cordileone may have added another plot twist to an already freighted American political drama. But his main success may have been in highlighting the stakes of an even bigger ballot – one in which McElroy looks to have a vote and Cordileone does not.


David Gibson, a journalist and author who writes about religion, is the director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.