On Saturday, New Mexico state Sen. Joe Cervantes, a Democrat from Las Cruces, tweeted that because he voted to repeal a state law that criminalized abortion, he was denied communion by Bishop Peter Baldacchino, apparently after several warnings (something the senator conveniently neglected to mention).
I was denied communion last night by the Catholic bishop here in Las Cruces and based on my political office. My new parish priest has indicated he will do the same after the last was run off. Please pray for church authorities as Catholicism transitions under Pope Francis.
— Sen. Joe Cervantes (@SenJoeCervantes) July 17, 2021
Sadly, Cervantes’s cavalier attitude about the murder of the unborn is nothing new, a point best shown by the predictably ignorant reaction of prominent Catholic Democrats to last month’s decision by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to issue a document clarifying the church’s teachings about the Eucharist.
Although the document will chiefly be a broad effort to educate American Catholics on key theological matters related to the Eucharist such as the Real Presence, these Democrats have preferred to focus on the possibility that bishops like Baldacchino might finally call them to account for their scandalous (in the theological sense) support for abortion.
While this support has been a concern of faithful Catholics for decades, the problem has gained new urgency in the last year because of the candidacy and election of Joe Biden, a supposedly “devout Catholic,” who nevertheless supports the “right” of women to murder their inconvenient children while they are in the womb.
Both Catholic and non-Catholic Democrats, sensing serious trouble on the horizon, have circled their wagons around President Biden on this issue. Mere hours after the USCCB’s announcement, 60 Catholic House Democrats accused it of seeking the “weaponize the Eucharist” against those elected officials who have turned the grave sin of abortion into a virtue. Other abortion advocates followed suit, grounding their opposition to USCCB’s potential showing of a spine in the cliched argument of “the wall of separation of church and state,” a principle that appears nowhere in our founding documents and was conspicuously absent among leftists targeting churches during the lockdown fever of 2020-2021.
These arguments ignore another basic reality of Catholic doctrine: priests and bishops have not only a right, but a duty, to spiritually discipline members of their flocks. Motivated either by sincere yet misguided pastoral charity or by more earthly considerations, American bishops have allowed this thorny question to fester until this moment. They could not exercise direct authority over pro-abortion Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama, as both were Protestants, but Biden’s public Catholic identity demands a response.
Luckily for the USCCB, church history contains many examples of bishops who spoke truth to power. Other authors have invoked Thomas Becket’s opposition to King Henry II of England and Pope Gregory VII’s dramatic excommunication of King Henry IV of Germany. However, the less well-known story of Ambrose of Milan’s excommunication of Theodosius the Great resonates particularly well with the current situation facing the USCCB.
Born in 340, Ambrose was a career civil servant in the twilight of the Roman era. The peak of his political career came in 370 when he served as the consular general of Liguria and Aemilia in Italy. Four years later, he was “shanghaied” into becoming the bishop of Milan because of his zeal, learning, and administrative experience.
In those days, Milan was the de facto capital of the Western Roman Empire, so Bishop Ambrose continued to rub elbows with those in power, most notably the Emperor Theodosius, who made Christianity the official religion of the empire in 380.
Theodosius was both a devout Christian and a stern ruler. In April 390, the Greek city of Thessalonica rose in revolt against him. Theodosius’s forces quickly put down the rebellion and then massacred 7,000 men, women, and children without trial.
In the face of such injustice, Ambrose did not simply wring his hands and offer up thoughts and prayers. Instead, he took decisive action to correct his wayward sheep; when Theodosius came to worship at the church, Ambrose met him at the doors and publicly forbade him to enter. The historian Theodoret describes this tense moment between church and state:
You do not reflect, it seems, O Emperor, on the guilt you have incurred by that great massacre; but now that your fury is appeased, do you not perceive the enormity of your crime? You must not be dazzled by the splendor of the purple you wear and be led to forget the weakness of the body which it clothes. Your subjects, O Emperor, are of the same nature as yourself, and not only so, but are likewise your fellow servants; for there is one Lord and Ruler of all, and He is the maker of all creatures, whether princes or people. How would you look upon the temple of the one Lord of all? How could you lift up in prayer hands steeped in the blood of so unjust a massacre? Depart then, and do not by a second crime add to the guilt of the first.
Bishop Ambrose did not dispute Theodosius’s God-given duty to maintain public order; he did not even claim that the emperor had no right to condemn the rebels to death. However, when Theodosius’s wrath claimed innocent victims without even a hint of due process, Ambrose was compelled, as the shepherd of his flock, to excommunicate the most powerful man in the Roman world.
If Ambrose of Milan was inspired to such righteous anger by the slaughter of 7,000 innocents in Thessalonica, how much more angry should his modern successors in the United States be when the policies of President Biden and other American Catholic leaders turn a blind eye to (and even encourage) the slaughter of more than double that number of innocents every single week?
After Ambrose’s rebuke, the pious Theodosius meekly repented of his sin and was allowed to return into communion with the church. Should the USCCB follow Ambrose’s example, American Catholics would at the very least see for themselves if their leaders and representatives are as devout as they and the media like to say they are.
For too long, Catholic Democrats like Sen. Joe Cervantes and President Biden have been “dazzled by the splendor of the purple [they] wear” into thinking that their support for mass murder of the unborn can be reconciled with the faith that they claim to hold dear. As the USCCB crafts this teaching document, all faithful Catholics should pray that St. Ambrose of Milan will lend his American successors some of his courage and wisdom.
Happily, there’s at least one bishop in New Mexico who has taken Ambrose’s lesson to heart.