From the Lion’s Heart

Fr. Dwight Longenecker

By Fr. Dwight Longenecker

Father Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His upcoming book, Beheading Hydra: A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age, will be published by Sophia Institute Press in the Spring. Read more at

Archbishop Cordileone
Photo Credit: Lauren Cater/Catholic News Agency

As many have observed, the Archbishop of San Francisco (Salvatore Cordileone) is lion-hearted. His namesake, King Richard, was a famous crusader, and with Before I Formed You in the Womb, his recent pastoral letter on abortion and Catholics in public office, Archbishop Cordileone steps forward as a prominent voice in our culture wars.

Some Catholics (including the highest-ranking members of the hierarchy) seem weary of the fight to ban abortion—saying we should talk about other issues. Those who advocate for that tattered vestment “the seamless garment” argue that many other issues also have to do with the sanctity of human life. True enough, but equating abortion with immigration, racism, prison reform, and ecology is to miss the fundamental aspect of the abortion battle. All human rights depend on the most basic right—the right to life.

Archbishop Cordileone begins his impassioned epistle by restating this bottom line, “Abortion is the axe laid to the roots of the tree of human rights: when our culture encourages the violation of life at its youngest and most vulnerable condition, other ethical norms cannot stand for long.” In the first section of his letter, the Archbishop rehearses the now indisputable scientific facts about the beginning of human life and details the horrors of late-term abortion.

In the second section, he provides an excellent summary and explanation of Catholic moral theology on the question of cooperation with evil. This section should serve as a takeaway for discussions of the document since it sheds light on the thorny question of who is guilty when abortion takes place. It corrects both those who say it doesn’t matter and those who want to excommunicate any Catholic who ever voted for a Democrat candidate.

Archbishop Lionheart first explains the distinction between formal and material cooperation with evil. Formal cooperation means actively and intentionally facilitating the evil action. Gestapo who believed the Nazi ideology and supported the final solution and assisted with evacuating the ghetto and herding Jews into boxcars were guilty of formal cooperation with evil even if they themselves did not close the doors on the gas chambers and pour the Zyklon-B pellets into the vents.

Material cooperation means one does not agree with the action but still helps to facilitate it in some way. Material cooperation could be immediate or mediate. Immediate is cooperation in the action itself. Mediate is assisting in some aspect leading up to or following on from the evil action. To use the death camps example again, those who devised the final solution and designed the gas chambers (even though they were “only following orders”) were guilty of immediate material cooperation with evil. Those who helped herd the victims into the gas chambers and then pulled out the bodies and loaded them into the ovens were guilty of mediate material cooperation.

A further distinction is possible: Mediate material cooperation can be either proximate (near) or remote (at a distance). So, helping the victims undress and sending them to the “showers” would be proximate, while being part of the manufacture of the Zyklon-B poison (which was originally simply a disinfectant and insecticide) would be remote mediate material cooperation.

Once all the hair-splitting is done, it remains that both formal cooperation and immediate material cooperation in a grave evil is never permissible. Archbishop Cordileone applies the distinctions to abortion and summarizes, “Given the reality that abortion violates the most fundamental moral principle, the right to life itself, the teaching of our faith is clear: those who kill or assist in killing the child (even if personally opposed to abortion), those who pressure or encourage the mother to have an abortion, who pay for it, 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” are all cooperating with a very serious evil.”

Then Archbishop Cordileone explains the Catholic teaching on reception of Communion. Quoting from Sacred Scripture and early Church documents, the pastoral letter reaffirms that those in grave sin and those who cannot affirm Church teaching should not present themselves to receive Communion. Usually this is a private matter, but the Archbishop concludes this section by pointing out that pro-abortion policies are public, not private: “In the case of public figures who profess to be Catholic and promote abortion, we are not dealing with a sin committed in human weakness or a moral lapse: this is a matter of persistent, obdurate, and public rejection of Catholic teaching.”

Finally, the Archbishop clearly calls for Catholics in public life who support abortion to refrain from Communion: “If you find that you are unwilling or unable to abandon your advocacy for abortion, you should not come forward to receive Holy Communion. To publicly affirm the Catholic faith while at the same time publicly rejecting one of its most fundamental teachings is simply dishonest.”

Cordileone must be aware that, in addition to President Joe Biden, one of his own flock, Nancy Pelosi, is in such a situation. One assumes that the Archbishop has already spoken or written to Pelosi privately. Will a public refusal for her to receive Communion now follow?

Not content to admonish politicians, Cordileone has also written about those fellow pastors who decline from correcting errant Catholics: “There is another source of scandal that pertains specifically to Catholics in public life: if their participation in the evil of abortion is not addressed forthrightly by their pastors, this can lead Catholics (and others) to assume that the moral teaching of the Catholic Church on the inviolate sanctity of human life is not seriously held.” 

Calling on all in authority in the Church, he writes, “When public figures identify themselves as Catholics and yet actively oppose one of the most fundamental doctrines of the Church—the inherent dignity of each and every human being and therefore the absolute prohibition of taking innocent human life—we pastors have a responsibility both to them and to the rest of our people. Our responsibility to them is to call them to conversion and to warn them that if they do not amend their lives they must answer before the tribunal of God for the innocent blood that has been shed.”

One of the most striking problems in the Church today is the pusillanimity of our pastors. May God grant a new spirit of courage in our day, so that when called on to stand up for life, for faith, and for freedom we may do so not only with the meekness of a lamb but also with the heart of a lion.