This week, Illinois passed the most extreme pro-abortion state legislation in America — with some Catholic lawmakers taking the lead in pushing forward this anti-life bill.
In response, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, today issued a public decree communicating to his priests that all Illinois Catholic lawmakers who voted for the state’s new Reproductive Health Act, or for an earlier 2017 bill that legalized taxpayer funding of abortions, should not present themselves to receive Holy Communion in the Diocese of Springfield “without first being reconciled to Christ and the Church.” The decree, and an accompanying letter, were mailed earlier in the week to all of the Catholic lawmakers who voted in favor of the bills.
And the new decree singles out by name House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, stating that because of their important leadership roles in the passage of the pair of pro-abortion bills, they “are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois because they have obstinately persisted in promoting the abominable crime and very grave sin of abortion.”
The decree cites Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, which specifies that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion,” and Canon 916, which states that “a person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession” except in cases where a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing.
“The Eucharist is the most sacred aspect of our Catholic faith,” Bishop Paprocki said in a press statement accompanying the decree. “As sacred Scripture warns, ‘Whoever eats unworthily of the bread and drinks from the Lord’s cup makes himself guilty of profaning the Body and of the Blood of the Lord.’ To support legislation that treats babies in the womb like property, allowing for their destruction for any reason at any time, is evil. It’s my hope and prayer these lawmakers reconcile themselves to the Church so they can receive Communion.”
In this interview with the Register, Bishop Paprocki discusses why he felt impelled to issue the decree, the harm being caused to the faith nationwide by U.S. Catholic politicians who continue to ignore their bishops and pastors by supporting extreme pro-abortion laws like the one just passed in Illinois, and the Church’s unequivocal and unchanging teachings regarding the intrinsic evil of abortion.
This is a decree that will be of great interest in Illinois, but also nationally, as the entire abortion debate, continues in the United States. How did we reach this moment where it is necessary for a decree like this?
It seems to me that we’ve arrived at a point where we really need to be clear about the teachings of the Church, and an action like this is really designed to protect the integrity of our sacraments and the clarity of our teaching.
It wasn’t too long ago where you had the so-called pro-choice politicians at least saying abortion needed to be “safe, legal and rare,” and we’ve unfortunately come to the point where the politicians are celebrating the fact that abortion legislation is passing that allows for abortions right up until the moment of birth; that declares abortion to be “a fundamental right”; that requires taxpayer funding of abortion and additional measures like that that are really quite extreme.
And so now we’ve got politicians, Catholic politicians who are saying that they think the Church is wrong. They think the Church is wrong about abortion and euthanasia and our teachings on marriage and family life. And I think that cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. We have to be clear that you cannot be pro-abortion and be a Catholic in good standing. And that’s what this is really intended to do.
Have you been surprised over the years at the shift of a number of Catholic politicians in support of abortion — 14 Catholic U.S. senators voted against an important bill just last year [the Pain-Capable Unborn Children’s Act] and that involved Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois — and so many other acts the Church considers intrinsically evil?
Yes, it is somewhat surprising, but it’s especially disappointing because you have politicians who have publicly embraced their Catholicism and have made it made known that they considered themselves to be Catholics, and they want Catholic voters especially to know that they’re Catholic; but they seem then to have taken this position that they know better than the Church. And, in fact, it seems to be the goal of some of them, that they’re going to force the Church to change her teaching on these matters.
And I think that we have to be quite clear, as I [am] in my decree on this matter. I’ve got several paragraphs in there that try to trace the history of this matter going back to the first century of the Church, where you had the declaration and the document called the Didache — “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion.” “You shall not cause the newborn to perish.” So it goes back all the way from the earliest beginnings of Christianity.
But even for those who want to say, “Well, you know, times have changed and we’re in the post-Vatican II era and we have to adapt to the times ...,” I also have in my decree a statement from the declaration from the Second Vatican Council document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes; in Paragraph 51, it says, “Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: Abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.” This is the Second Vatican Council calling abortion and infanticide “abominable crimes.”
And, even more recently, Pope Francis has used very similar language. In 2016, he used the terminology such as abortion is “a very grave evil.” He called it “a horrendous crime.”
So we can’t have politicians today saying, “You know what? The Church is wrong. It was wrong 2,000 years ago. It was wrong at the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis is wrong. The Church needs to get with it and start accepting the reality of abortion.” And we have to be clear that if that’s their intent then that’s simply not acceptable.
Pope Francis, I think just a few days ago, used the somewhat-colorful image of that you’re essentially hiring a hitman, stressing again that this is beyond simply a medical procedure, that this is the taking of a human life. But to go back to your pointing out, the Didache and others, can we explain, for those who may not be that familiar with the Church’s teachings on this — and it always bears worth repeating: why we consider abortion and euthanasia in particular, but other things, to be intrinsically evil. And what do we mean as a Church by intrinsically evil?
Things are intrinsically evil if they are evil in and of themselves. So, aside from circumstances that may condition a particular action or the intent of the person, it is, the action itself is intrinsically evil. Now, a person’s subjective culpability may be a different question, whether or not they are going to be judged by God for this act. And that could depend on things like their own formation, their knowledge, perhaps even whether or not they have proper use of reason, a deformed conscience, malformed conscience, but something in and of itself: You can never say that murder is okay, that murder is acceptable. You can say there are some justifiable moments, for example, where killing is acceptable, such as self-defense. It’s unfortunate that someone might be killed while you’re defending your own life, but that’s justifiable.
However, there’s no situation where you may intentionally go out and just murder someone, and, in effect, that’s what abortion is doing. It’s taking the life, a human life, which we respect as beginning at the moment of conception, because there really is no other point that you can draw this line, and I think we see the legislation passing and some states that are trying to protect life when a heartbeat is detectable, or when doctors and medical experts say that the unborn baby is capable of feeling pain, and so they’re recognizing that this is not just some tissue with a potential for human life, but it is real human life.
And we saw that very clearly in the recent movie Unplanned, about a former Planned Parenthood clinic director, Abby Johnson, in which she quit her job with Planned Parenthood after clearly seeing on an ultrasound that this was a baby in the mother’s womb who was actually trying to push away from the suction tube as it was about to kill that little baby. And so, things like that have helped us to recognize that we’re talking about protecting human life, and it really is abominable when people are arguing that you should be able to take that human life right up until the moment of birth.
You have mentioned that we have gone from 1992, and the Democratic Party platform under Bill Clinton declaring abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” to today, which is effectively abortion on demand. From your perspective as a pastor and then certainly as a bishop, this progression toward a more radicalized approach, far more radical than anything being previously proposed: How, from your standpoint, do we respond to that? Because we need to respond very forcefully, and I know your decree is part of that, but for the average Catholic, what should they think of this?
I think they should see this as a clear affirmation of Church teaching about the respect for human life from conception to natural death. It should be also an affirmation of the clear teaching that abortion is wrong. It should also be seen as a clear effort to uphold the integrity of the sacraments and to maintain the consistency between all of those.
It is scandalous, I think, to people — that’s another issue here — it is truly scandalous to people when they see Catholic politicians saying, “I’m a Catholic but I am going to vote for this abortion legislation.” And then they do vote for it, and they vote for this extreme legislation that is promoting abortion, and other faithful Catholics wonder: How can they do that? How can they do that and get away with it?
This document is not intended as a political document. The legislation has already passed. What this document is saying is that the people who have done this have done something that is simply not acceptable to the Catholic Church.
So the approach I’m taking here is, there’s two canons in the Code of Canon law, Canon 915 and Canon 916, that are applicable. Canon 915 is the one that has received a lot more media attention, and that is the one that basically says that those who have obstinately persisted in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion. So obstinate persistence requires more than one act. And that’s why my decree really just singles out the speaker of the House here in Illinois, Michael Madigan, as well as the president of the state Senate, John Cullerton, because they have persistently, over a number of years now, pushed this pro-abortion legislation.
There was a bill that was passed in 2017 that was basically the bill that provided for taxpayer funding of abortion and also said that if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned that Illinois would remain a state where abortion would continue to be legal. And then, two years later, these same legislative leaders, the speaker of the House and the Senate president, are pushing for this passage of this so-called Reproductive Health Act of 2019, that purports to declare abortion to be “a fundamental right” and also declares that an unborn baby does not have independent rights under the laws of the state. In addition to that, another aggravating factor that I would add is the fact that, by virtue of their position as legislative leaders, they have facilitated the passage of this legislation. And so, for that reason, Canon 915 applies, that says they are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.
Canon 916 is the one that applies to really anybody who is conscious of grave sin. And that doesn’t require any kind of obstinate persistence. One mortal sin. If you commit one mortal sin, you shouldn’t go to Communion. And that’s basically what Canon 916 is saying. So, in that case, in a sense, I’m just reminding — it’s a declaration or a reminder to — other Catholic legislators who have voted even for one pro-abortion bill. In a sense that is a very grave sin to be promoting abortion. And so, in that case is really a question of themselves not presenting themselves for Holy Communion, according to Canon 916. So I think it’s important to keep both of those canons in mind and for people to be aware of how they apply at different times to different people.
Right. Because there is often some confusion about what exactly these are trying to accomplish in the sense of from the Church’s standpoint, that people like to consider these simply penalties or punishments when in fact there is a very important spiritual component to this, isn’t there? In trying to bring them to reconciliation with what the Church actually teaches?
Yes. And again, with Canon 916, it’s really something that every Catholic should be aware of. And I think years ago people seemed to be more aware of that. People who were conscious that they had committed some mortal sin, didn’t have a chance to go to confession, so they would go to Mass, as everyone’s always obliged to go to Mass, whether you go to Communion or not, but they would refrain from going to Holy Communion. Whereas now it seems everybody thinks, well, I’m at Mass; I have to go to Communion. But, really, if a person is conscious of having committed a mortal sin and has not gone to confession, a sacramental confession prior to going to Mass, they should not approach themselves. Now, in many cases, the priest, the deacon, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion is not going to know that. They’re not going to know what people have done in their lives privately that may have been a mortal sin.
That’s why the burden or the obligation on Canon 916 is really on the individual person. Canon 915 is a situation where you have someone who is very public. That’s why it says this “obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin.” And so that’s why, in the case of abortion, you get somebody who was persistently, very obstinately, just saying, “No, I’m going to go ahead and support this. I disagree with the Catholic Church.” And in that case, that’s what’s giving scandal to the faithful. And that has nothing to do in a sense with the person’s subjective relationship with God, whether or not they are a culpable in a subjective sense. What it has to do with is objectively speaking. And the bishop ultimately is the one in a diocese who was responsible for determining that. And when there are people who, by their external objective actions, are behaving in a way that is obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin, then I feel it is my duty as a bishop that I have to respond and act accordingly.
So you have an obligation as a pastor to teach clearly and to reiterate what the Church believes and teaches, but you also have an obligation to make certain that there isn’t confusion among the faithful as to what we actually do believe. Is that right?
Yes. And that’s why I talk about the integrity of the sacraments and the integrity of the faith, that what we’re talking about here is the burden, then, on a diocesan bishop, in terms of his responsibility for defending the faith.
It’s not enough to simply say, “Well, under Canon 916, if that person thinks they’ve committed a mortal sin, they shouldn’t go to [Communion].” There’s an additional responsibility on the shepherd of the flock to say, “The wolf is here; the wolf is in our midst.” And sometimes that wolf is wearing sheep’s clothing. And we have to say that to the faithful and the members of the flock, “Beware the wolf is in your midst. And do not follow that wolf because he will lead you down the wrong path.” And, ultimately, the very last canon in the Code of Canon law is that the salvation of souls is the highest law.
And for any bishop we have to be concerned with the salvation of souls. I’m concerned for the salvation of the souls of these politicians who are voting and promoting legislation that is gravely sinful. But I’m also, as a shepherd of souls, concerned about the scandal that they are giving to other people who, if we don’t respond appropriately, they’re looking at this saying, “Well, the bishop’s not saying anything. So I guess it’s maybe not that bad.” And that’s very scandalous, not only for the politician to be doing that, but also for the bishop’s inaction, in a sense. And what kind of message is that giving?
How do you respond to those politicians, those Catholic politicians, who say, “Well, I may be personally opposed to abortion, but it would not be appropriate for me to ‘impose my religious beliefs’ on the civil community?”
Well, that’s an argument that goes back to the former governor [of New York], Mario Cuomo, who tried to make that argument, but I think that argument has been pretty well shredded over the years. I mean, it has been shredded in terms of how we understand moral theology; but even from a political point of view, what other area of politics does a politician ever say, “This is my personal point of view, but I’m not going to impose that on anybody.”
If somebody believes, for example, that we shouldn’t have borders and that we should be more generous about migrants, they would never say, “Well, that’s my personal view, but I’m not going to impose that on anybody.” Somebody thinks there should be greater gun-control laws: I’ve never heard a politician say, “Well, gun control is my personal view, but I’m not going to impose that view on anybody else.”
So, why do we elect legislative leaders? We elect them. They have platforms. They state their views, and then it’s up to the voters to decide, “Well, if this politician has views that agree with mine, I’ll vote for him or her. And, if he or she doesn’t, then I won’t vote for that person.” But you know, for a politician to say, “Well, these are my personal views, but I’m not going to seek to have that enshrined in legislation,” well, then, you should resign your job because your whole job is really about how you promote certain values. That’s what laws are. Laws are embodiments or codifications of values and, many cases, moral values. And so it’s really an abdication of responsibility. And it’s a falsehood, also, for somebody to use that argument that “I’m personally opposed, but I’m not going to impose that on somebody else.”
Your Excellency, we’re almost out of time, but I know that a number of other bishops across the United States have issued similar statements. Do you expect that as the abortion controversy, as the struggle against abortion continues, that more decrees like this will be necessary in more and more dioceses?
Well, I hope so. You know, there have been more statements made along those lines. The chairman of our bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City [Kansas], just this past February, made a statement that politicians who support abortion should not present themselves to receive Holy Communion. So this is the chairman of the committee elected by the bishops of the United States. The majority of the bishops elected him. We elected someone because he stands for certain values. And so when, when he is saying this, he’s speaking as our leader on pro-life issues. And so I hope other bishops will take a cue from him. I think we are at a point now where we simply have to be more vocal and we have to be more clear about what the Church teaches in this regard and how this affects politicians and the consequences when they do, so very persistently and obstinately, reject Church teaching on abortion.
Matthew E. Bunson is a Register senior editor.
This interview has been edited for style and length. The full audio interview is available on Register Radio.