Days after Illinois lawmakers passed legislation that secured legal abortion as a fundamental right, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield took swift action, issuing a directive that explicitly banned two Chicago-area Catholic Democrats — House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton — from receiving Holy Communion in his diocese.

The two legislators “have obstinately persisted in promoting the abominable crime and very grave sin of abortion as evidenced by the influence they exerted in their leadership roles and their repeated votes and obdurate public support for abortion rights over an extended period of time,” read Bishop Paprocki’s decree.

Bishop Paprocki further directed other Catholic lawmakers who also backed the Reproductive Health Act, and thus “cooperated in evil and committed grave sin,” to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until they had reconciled with the Church.

Madigan later acknowledged that he had received prior warning of Bishop Paprocki’s plan to issue the decree, but expressed no regret.

“I believe it is more important to protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions,” said Madigan, echoing his party’s insistence that abortion services be treated like any other health care procedure.

The politicians’ supporters have framed the bishop’s action as an improper attempt to intervene in state politics. But in an interview with the Register (see In Person interview), Bishop Paprocki explained that the decree had been issued after the Illinois Legislature approved the Reproductive Health Act, and therefore was not a “political document.”

And as an Illinois bishop, he had the right and responsibility both to care for the soul of every Catholic lawmaker and “to protect the integrity of our sacraments and the clarity of our teaching.”

Bishop Paprocki’s decree and his defense of his rights and obligations as a Catholic shepherd offer crucial guidance and inspiration during a time of grave confusion over Catholic moral teaching within the Church and growing intolerance toward the Judeo-Christian natural-law tradition in American politics.

Progressive activists have presented the Church’s long-standing prohibitions of abortion and other moral absolutes as extreme, discriminatory precepts. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood and its allies in the Democratic Party are escalating an aggressive “take no prisoners” campaign to secure more expansive abortion rights, and on June 10, Vermont was the latest Democrat-controlled state to pass legislation securing these goals. 

The party’s new crop of presidential hopefuls have also publicly affirmed their commitment to Roe v. Wade and demanded the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of abortions except where necessary to protect the mother’s life of health and in the cases of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

In early June, Joe Biden, the former vice president and the party’s frontrunner, succumbed to extraordinary pressure from Planned Parenthood and its allies and formally repudiated the Hyde Amendment, after supporting it for 43 years.

Biden’s public humiliation was an object lesson for would-be pro-life Democrats and a slap in the face for every American who cares about unborn human life and conscience rights. 

After the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand in 1973 in the Roe decision, Biden was among the first self-identified “Catholic” lawmakers to express his “personal opposition” to abortion while insisting that it was wrong to “impose” his religious beliefs on non-Catholics. That formulation was and remains morally incoherent, and it also misrepresents the Church’s teaching on abortion. Still, his ongoing support for the Hyde Amendment provided his evolving position with a gloss of respectability: While he did not want to “impose” his religious beliefs on non-Catholics, he also did not want to force pro-life taxpayers to fund a procedure they viewed as intrinsically evil. 

Today, self-described Catholic lawmakers who back abortion rights are more likely to contend that the Church is just plain wrong.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., another presidential hopeful, repeated this line of argument during a May 29 interview with Iowa Public Radio. Gillibrand said she identified as “Catholic,” but she argued that the Church’s moral doctrine on abortion was not supported “by the Gospel or the Bible in any way.”

Bishop Paprocki rejected such assertions in his decree, in which he traced Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion back “to the first century of the Church, where a document called the Didache stated: ‘You shall not kill the embryo by abortion.’ ‘You shall not cause the newborn to perish.’”

Anticipating the skeptical reactions of some 21st-century Catholics, he also cited the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on abortion in Gaudium et Spes: “Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: Abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes” (51).  Finally, the decree referenced Pope Francis’ repeated condemnation of abortion as “a very grave evil” and “a horrendous crime.”

On June 10, another leading U.S. bishop weighed in on the issue of pro-abortion politicians in the specific context of Biden’s dramatic reversal on the Hyde Amendment and what that reversal reflects in terms of contemporary Democratic Party priorities. “Translation: The unborn child means exactly zero in the calculus of power for Democratic Party leaders, and the right to an abortion, once described as a tragic necessity, is now a perverse kind of ‘sacrament most holy,’” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia commented in an article published by his archdiocesan newspaper. “It will have a candidate’s allegiance and full-throated reverence … or else.”

It should be noted that a few brave and principled pro-life Catholic Democratic politicians continue to reject their party’s pro-abortion orthodoxy, such as Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who recently signed a new law dramatically restricting abortion in his state, and U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who for the second election cycle in a row is being targeted by some leaders of his own party because of his unswerving pro-life commitment. The Register applauds their courageous pro-life witness.

For his part, Bishop Paprocki is fulfilling his duty to guard his flock and the sacrament of the Eucharist by clarifying the truths that have guided Christ’s disciples for two millennia.

And though his decree is not a “political document,” we pray that it will stiffen the spines of Catholic lawmakers who find themselves at the same crossroads as Biden. Will they challenge party orthodoxy and defend unborn human life and conscience rights, or genuflect before the grotesque “sacrament” of abortion?