Catholics in High Public Office Today

Today there are approximately 51 million Catholic Christians in the United States. The U.S. population currently numbers approximately 330 million, and thus Catholics make up only about one fifth of the population. Nevertheless, there is an appreciable number of Catholics in public office.

For example, there are 158 Catholics in congress and six of the justices on the Supreme Court identify themselves as Catholic. Indeed, there are two Catholics who hold the highest and most powerful public offices in the United States today. I am referring to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Congressperson Nancy Pelosi, who is a Catholic Christian from California. Indeed, as a child Pelosi attended the Institute of Notre Dame, a private Catholic girls high school in Baltimore. And now our recently elected president, Joseph Biden, is identifiable as having been baptized and raised Catholic. When a boy, Biden attended Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school in Claymont, Delaware. But among these politically prominent Catholic Christians, their witness to their Catholic faith varies considerably.

For example, sometimes Nancy Pelosi and Joseph Biden take political stances that are in sharp opposition to Catholic moral teaching. Indeed, it is amazing to see how both of them advocate not only freedom of choice regarding abortion but even federal funding of abortion. On March 16, 2020, Biden announced his support for federal funding of abortions. On August 31, 2020, House Speaker Pelosi announced her support for legislation which would appropriate federal funds to pay for abortions. In contrast, the quality of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholicism is resilient. On October 27, 2020, she was sworn in as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. As a girl Coney Barrett attended St. Mary’s Dominican High School in New Orleans, Louisiana.

There is considerable evidence that Amy Coney Barrett, besides being a lawyer and judge and a Justice of the Supreme Court, a devoted wife and mother, is also a devout Catholic committed to her Church’s teachings. For example, back in 2017 when Barrett was a nominee for an appeals court position, California Senator Dianne Feinstein said to her, “The dogma lives loudly within you.” Another example of how Barrett lives her faith is her commitment to the moral ideal of “black lives matter.” I am referring to the fact that among her children are five by natural birth but also two by adoption, two black children from Haiti. On May 20, 2021, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving a Mississippi law limiting access to abortion. I suspect Justice Barrett will support that law.

Respect for human life is an important biblical teaching and a hallmark of Catholic Christian faith. More precisely, it is the Bible that teaches us the special respect that should be accorded human life. Not only is there the commandment “You shall not kill” (in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:16–18, but in Psalm 127.3 we are told the child in the womb is a precious thing, indeed “the fruit of the womb is a reward.” And then there is Psalm 8, vs. 4ff which elaborates on the importance of human life. I quote here for the New Revised Standard Version. Psalm 8 begins with a remark about how human life appears as rather negligible in comparison with the glory of the universe: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you should care for them?” But then the psalmist goes on to make clear the special character of human life: “You have made them a little lower than God, you crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands.”

We thus see that while the universe is a magnificent spectacle, nevertheless, the human being holds a special place amid the vast and varied creation that is the cosmos. No doubt there is a great genre of literature and cinema called “science fiction” whose basic premise is that there are life forms in the universe, life forms often greater than human beings. However, NASA (our National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has been exploring the universe for more than fifty years but has yet to find any form of life on other planets. But even here on earth where life forms abound, among those numerous life forms human life is pre-eminent indeed outstanding. While all life forms on the earth are ruled by instincts, innate laws. For example, bees make honey every day. In contrast, human beings exhibit a degree of knowledge and will whereby they can determine for themselves what they will do in life. As is said in Psalm 8, human beings have “dominion” over the world. “Dominion” means wise rule, not “domination” which is arbitrary rule. Catholic politicians ought to be not only aware of but faithful to these biblical teachings. While all life is important, human life, from conception to death, is of the greatest importance. The United States Conference of Catholic bishops has not made any public pronouncement on this issue.

On November 24, 2002, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” The document was addressed not just to U.S. bishops but to all the bishops of the Catholic Church and was signed by the prefect of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Among the concerns it addressed was abortion: “It is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo.”

After Joseph Biden’s election to the presidency of the United States, one pastor made it on his own initiative to publicly reprimand Biden for his support of abortion. On October 27, 2019, Joseph Biden was denied communion by Father Robert Morey, pastor of Saint Anthony Church in Florence, South Carolina. Four days later, on October 31, 2019, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, spoke on the television network Fox News about his own feelings regarding that priest’s denial of communion to Joseph Biden. On the one hand, Cardinal Dolan agreed with that priest’s motive: “I think that priest had a good point. You are publicly at odds with an issue of substance, critical substance. We’re talking about life and death in the church. You personally, out of integrity, should not approach Holy Communion because that implies that you’re in union with all the church beliefs.” But Dolan went on to make it clear that, while Catholics who do not observe Church teaching should refrain from taking Communion, Dolan himself would never deny anyone communion. He went on to say: “I am not there as a tribunal, as a judge in distributing Holy Communion . . . if only saints could receive Holy Communion, we wouldn’t have anybody at Mass, including myself.”

In January of 2020 Archbishop Charles Chaput retired from his position as archbishop of Philadelphia. Nevertheless, in the December 4, 2020 issue of the magazine First Things, published an article by Archbishop Charles Chaput entitled “Mr. Biden and the Matter of Scandal.” In that article Chaput said Catholic president-elect Joe Biden should not receive Holy Communion because of his support for the “grave moral evil” of abortion and Chaput warned that individual bishops who publicly announce their intention to give Biden Communion risk doing “serious disservice” to Biden and to the rest of American bishops.

More recently, on May 1, 2021, the Most Reverend Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco, California, issued a pastoral letter On the Human Dignity of the Unborn, Holy Communion, and Catholics in Public Life. In that letter Archbishop Cordileone says “This pastoral letter addresses all Catholics, but especially Catholics in public life, calling for deep reflection on the evil of abortion and on the meaning of receiving Holy Communion, the Bread of Life.” Later he explains more precisely what he means by “Catholics in public life”: “Catholics who are prominent in all walks of public life — entertainment, media, politics, education, the corporate world, and so forth — as they have such a powerful influence on shaping the attitudes and practices of people in our nation.”

In that sentence, Cordileone makes it clear that he has in mind a wide range of Catholics. However, he later addresses the issue in more political terms: “The teaching of our faith is clear: those who kill or assist in killing the child (even if personally opposed to abortion), those who provide financial assistance to organizations to provide abortions, or who support candidates or legislation for the purpose of making abortion a more readily available ‘choice.’ The fact that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi resides in the Archdiocese of San Francisco cannot help but suggest that she is the most prominent example of this moral issue in that archdiocese.”

Most recently, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a letter dated May 7, 2021, addressed to Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Gomez had informed the doctrinal office that U.S. bishops were preparing at the June meeting to draw up a document addressing “the situation of Catholics in public office who support legislation allowing abortion, euthanasia and other moral evils.” Ladaria responded saying, “When this issue resurfaced during the 2019-2020 ad limina visits of the United States bishops, this Congregation advised that dialogue among the bishops be undertaken to preserve the unity of the episcopal conference in the face of disagreements over this controversial topic.” This insistence upon consensus is reflected in the next paragraph when Ladaria says, “Such a statement would need to express a true consensus of the bishops on the matter, while observing the prerequisite than I provisions of the Conference in this area would respect the rights of individual Ordinaries in their dioceses and the prerogatives of the Holy See.”

On Thursday, May 13, 2021, Nancy Pelosi, in an interview with the Catholic television station EWTN’s nightly news correspondent Erik Rosales, said she was pleased with Cardinal Ladaria’s letter. Cardinal Ladaria’s concern for the unity of the U.S. episcopal conference is understandable and, indeed, laudable. But we should not forget the teaching of Saint Paul in First Corinthians 11:27–29, a teaching quoted by Archbishop Cordileone: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup.” While Cardinal Dolan is correct in his refusal to pass judgment on the worthiness of those who come forth for communion because they are common folk whose sins are not readily apparent, on the other hand, the morality of Catholics prominent in public life is much more readily discernible, and indeed, at times a cause for scandal.

Lawrence B. Porter, STL, PhD About Lawrence B. Porter, STL, PhD

Lawrence B. Porter, STB, STL, STLr, PhD, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, and a professor of systematic theology in the Seminary/School of Theology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ. In his thirty years of teaching, Porter has published two books, A Guide to the Church (2008) and The Assault on Priesthood (2012), and more than thirty articles in various pastoral and theological journals. Porter regularly presides and preaches at the noon time Sunday Mass at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Hillside, NJ.


  1. Avatar Tom Whalen says:

    “… the quality of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholicism is resilient.”

    -Staunch supporter of gun ownership, the means of death of tens of thousands per year
    – Overlooked the use of the N-word in a workplace dismissal suit
    – Wrote a unanimous three-judge panel decision in 2019 making it easier for men alleged to have committed sexual assaults on campus to challenge the proceedings against them.
    – Was in dissent in June, 2020 when her two colleagues on a 7th Circuit panel put on hold, just in Chicago, the Trump administration policy that could jeopardize permanent resident status for immigrants who use food stamps, Medicaid and housing vouchers.
    Just a few examples of her resilient Catholicism on the bench.
    Some advice:
    Matthew 7: 1-2
    “Do not judge, or you will be judged. For with the same judgment you pronounce, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.…

    Luke 6:37
    Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

    Luke 6:41
    Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?

    John 8:7
    When they continued to question Him, He straightened up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.”

    Romans 2:1
    You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on another. For on whatever grounds you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

    Romans 14:10
    Why, then, do you judge your brother? Or why do you belittle your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.

    Romans 14:13
    Therefore let us stop judging one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.

    1 Corinthians 4:5
    Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.

  2. Avatar James Martello Jr says:

    I, for one, am grateful for the clarity and moral leadership shown by Archbishop Cortileone. The message being sent by some in the Church’s hierarchy to pro-abortion Catholics is scandalous and hurtful to many Catholics who struggle to advance the Gospel of Life, not to mention, gives cover to a gravely sinful practice. I fear many pallums will end up millstones around necks unless Archbishop Cortileone’s brother bishops don’t follow his lead.

  3. Fr. Porter, a friend, once again gives ample biblical material to reflect upon and a fair discussion to aid understanding. He seems to conclude, as I have done, that a prudential position would be that Catholics who support the “right to choose” should not come to Communion, should reflect on their support, and change their minds and hearts if at all possible in truth. However, it probably is not prudent for a bishop, and much less a priest, to deny Communion to the choice supporter unless he can honestly say that he does so to save his/her soul.

  4. Avatar DENNIS BABSON says:

    Cortileone was installed Archbishop of San Francisco over eight years ago. What’s he waiting for?