Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton have been banned from receiving communion in Springfield-area churches because of their support for legislation that expands abortion access.
The decree barring Illinois' two highest-ranking lawmakers – both Catholic Democrats from Chicago – from taking the sacrament was issued by Thomas Paprocki, bishop of the Springfield Diocese, less than a week after an abortion rights bill won final approval in the legislature and sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Paprocki said in the decree that he imposed the sanction on Madigan and Cullerton because of their role in facilitating the passage of the proposed law, known as the Reproductive Health Act.
"They 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," the decree states.
The Reproductive Health Act, if signed into law by Pritzker, would establish that a pregnant woman has a fundamental right to have an abortion and that a "fertilized egg, embryo or fetus does not have independent rights." The measure also does away with past provisions such as spousal consent and waiting periods.
While the church sanctions singled out Madigan and Cullerton, Paprocki's decree also advises any Catholic state lawmaker who backed the abortion bill not to present themselves for Holy Communion because they "cooperated in evil and committed grave sin" by voting in favor of the measure.
Paprocki cited church law that calls for someone to abstain from communion if they have committed a grave sin.
"To the best of my knowledge the Senate President hasn't ever attended services there," a Cullerton spokesman said Wednesday.
Madigan issued a statement saying Paprocki had notified him earlier that if he permitted the House to debate and vote on the Reproductive Health Act, he would no longer be able to take communion.
"After much deliberation and reflection, I made the decision to allow debate and a vote on the legislation," the Madigan statement said. "I believe it is more important to protect a woman's right to make her own health care decisions, including women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest. With women's rights under attack in an increasing number of states across the country, Illinois is now a leader in making sure women are protected and their rights are upheld."
When asked if Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich has ever imposed similar sanctions on lawmakers who supported abortion-rights legislation, the Archdiocese of Chicago released a statement: "Cardinal Cupich has had a longstanding position over his 20-plus years as a bishop that it is important to place the emphasis on teaching what the Church believes about important issues of the day, all the while maintaining an unshakable confidence that the Eucharist is an opportunity of grace and conversion to bring people to the truth."
After the Senate approved the abortion bill last week, Cupich released a statement calling it a "sad moment in our history as a State."
"We have worked to make the case for a consistent approach to human dignity in Illinois and will continue to do so even as elected officials single out unborn persons for particular disregard," Cupich said. "It remains our hope that Illinois will eventually distinguish itself as a safe place that welcomes not only those seeking a new life or second chance, but also the most vulnerable among us who deserve a chance at life."
The practice of church leaders withholding communion from lawmakers who support abortion-related measures is not new. Michael Budde, DePaul University professor of Catholic studies and political science, said the issue is rooted in the interpretation by some bishops of canon law – the rules and procedures that govern the church.
There isn't a binding policy across all dioceses on whether lawmakers should be barred from receiving communion in such circumstances, Budde said. Instead, the church has left the decision up to each diocese.
Paprocki said he felt a sense of responsibility to take action following the passage of the bill, particularly because of the proximity of the state Capitol in Springfield to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
"I have a responsibility, I believe, to be clear that this is not acceptable to be taking these pro-abortion positions – not only taking the position but voting for them and facilitating this legislation that is not compatible with being a Catholic in good standing," Paprocki said in a telephone interview.
Similarly, when same-sex marriage was legalized in Illinois, the Springfield bishop announced he would offer prayers for "exorcism in reparation for the sin" of gay marriage.
Of the abortion decree, Paprocki said he was concerned about the "salvation of the souls of those politicians" who voted on the recent abortion measures and felt it was his duty to speak out.
For more than a decade, the Springfield Diocese has also refused to give Illinois' U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin communion because of his voting history on abortion measures.
Discussions on whether a politician should be banned from communion because of his or her voting record tend to surface around election cycles, Budde said. When John Kerry, a Catholic, was running for president in 2004, the debate gained national traction as some bishops called for sanctions against Kerry.
Budde said the question often highlights how the church, like much of the country, is polarized on social issues. The use of church sanctions against lawmakers because of how they vote on abortion-related bills has become a bit of a "political football" in recent years, Budde said.
"It's a very serious sanction that, when overused, becomes trivialized," Budde said. "It could lose whatever ... edge it's meant to have by using it poorly or too often."
But Paprocki said he doesn't see the decree he issued this week as a political act because the bill had already been voted on by the legislature. Madigan and Cullerton would be allowed to receive the church sacrament again in Springfield if they make a public statement and introduce legislation to repeal the recently passed abortion bill, the bishop said.
"It is intended to protect the integrity of the sacraments and the integrity of our faith, the consistency of our faith that our laws, all of our laws, in a sense embody our values," Paprocki said.