John Cullerton grew up in the church.
Long before the Illinois Democrat became one of the most powerful politicians in the state, before his party picked him to be president of the Senate, he attended Catholic school. A lot of it. Grammar school, high school, college, law school. Then he sent his children to Catholic school, all five of them. He’s from a devout family, and raised his own to be the same, he said.
But if he were to attend Mass — which he does every week — in the Illinois capital, maybe before a Senate session one morning, he’d be left out of the most important part of the service: Holy Communion.
Last week, an Illinois bishop issued a decree directed at Cullerton, his counterpart in the House and a host of other Catholic lawmakers, ordering them not to receive the sacred sacrament after supporting abortion rights legislation that the governor signed into law on Wednesday. The bishop’s strongly worded statement challenged the politicians to square their public policy positions with their professed faith, an issue that has proved particularly thorny for Catholic Democrats, whether they’re running for city council or president of the United States.
“It’s very, very tricky,” Cullerton said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We don’t codify the Catholic Church’s positions. You have your beliefs that are taught by the church, and it’s in your mind, but your role as a legislator is a little different.”
But Diocese of Springfield Bishop Thomas Paprocki voiced his emphatic disagreement in his directive, citing canon law and writing that supporting legislation that “treats babies in the womb like property, allowing for their destruction for any reason at any time, is evil.”
If Cullerton, House Speaker Michael Madigan or any other Catholic lawmaker who supported the measure want to receive Communion again, Paprocki said, they’d need to confess, repent and display “a public conversion of life.”
As bans on abortion have rocketed through legislatures in conservative states around the country, the Illinois law establishes the procedure as a woman’s “fundamental right.” And just as the debate over abortion rights has helped polarize the nation’s two main political parties, it has opened a rift in the Catholic Church, too.
Opinions often differ from pew to pew, parish to parish and bishop to bishop. Among congregants, there is disagreement over whether abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Church leadership, which considers abortion fundamentally and morally wrong, however, is more likely to argue about how to handle the Catholics with dissenting views.
“There is a major logjam in the conversation in the Catholic Church in America and in the greater western society because of this dualism you find,” Father Stan Chu Ilo, a Catholic studies professor at DePaul University in Chicago, told The Post. “Either you are a progressive or traditional. Either you are red or you are blue.”
In a rebuttal to Paprocki, Ilo said the decree is “ill-advised, unhelpful and will be counterproductive.”
“Contemporary Catholicism has long left behind the era when church officials used draconian and punitive measures and threats of hellfire to compel the minds and hearts of Catholics,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune. “This decree should be rescinded because it is not an appropriate and effective means of engaging Catholic politicians in their public role as representatives of all citizens.”
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, where Cullerton attends mass — and still receives communion — also disagreed with Paprocki, though he did so in a much subtler statement. He condemned the passage of the abortion rights bill but also said that “Bishop Paprocki’s edict applies to his diocese only.”
“This is how episcopal jurisdiction works in the church,” said Father Thomas Petri, a moral theologian at the Dominican House of Studies, explaining how guidance can vary from one diocese to the next. “The fear for some is that it turns Communion into a political football. But the concern of others, including myself, is wanting to challenge the faithful to live what we believe and to really think about how our faith impacts our choices.”
Cullerton and Madigan are just the two most recent lawmakers to be so challenged.
In 1984, then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, appeared at the University Notre Dame to deliver a now-famous address. Cuomo argued that it was possible and defensible for politicians to support abortion rights for all while opposing the procedure personally. This argument, and his political stand on the subject, prompted the archbishop of New York to threaten him with excommunication, the most serious punishment a Catholic can face.
Thirty-five years later, Cuomo’s son, current New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, is facing similar calls for excommunication after signing a bill that would expand abortion rights in the state.
In the interim, Lucy Killea was denied Communion during her bid for a California state Senate seat in 1989, a move that galvanized support for her among abortion rights groups and was thought to have actually propelled her to victory.
During then-Sen. John F. Kerry’s 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, the archbishop of St. Louis forbade the Catholic candidate from taking Communion while campaigning in the area. Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and former Vice President Joe Biden have all faced similar fates or threats for their stances on abortion.
Last year, Paprocki barred Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., from receiving Communion in Springfield after Durbin voted against a bill that would have outlawed abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
“In the last few decades, in many places, all issues have taken a back seat to abortion,” said Father James Martin, the editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America. “Certainly it’s an important issue — and I am pro-life — but it is not the only issue. And it is not even the only ‘life issue.’”
Some have argued that bishops should also focus on “life issues” like the death penalty, gun control, immigration and access to health care. Critics of the Communion ban for abortion rights advocacy have said church leaders are hypocritical if they don’t also withhold the sacrament from politicians who support capital punishment and oppose open borders.
“If you are pro-life, you are pro all life, and that needs to be squared with how you vote,” Martin said.
But Petri argued that some in the church treat abortion differently because it is different. As one of the few acts Catholic law considers “an intrinsic evil,” there is no room for debate, he said.
“We don’t think those are simply matters of faith,” Petri said. “Those are human matters. … It’s a primal issue about the nature of life and the nature of freedom.”
Yet when he’s in the Illinois State Capitol, Cullerton said, he abides by a different edict, a Jeffersonian one: the separation of church and state. He’s been in the legislature since 1978, five years after the Roe v. Wade decision was announced by the Supreme Court, and every time he’s confronted with a vote on abortion, he returns to that Mario Cuomo speech.
“We can be fully Catholic; proudly, totally at ease with ourselves, a people in the world, transforming it, a light to this nation. Appealing to the best in our people, not the worst,” Cuomo says in closing. “… And we can do it even as politicians.”
This year, Cullerton read it again.