The only reason the Rev. George Salazar could imagine denying Holy Communion to someone would be if they were too inebriated to know what they were doing, he said.
“I grant communion to whoever comes to the altar,” said Salazar, the priest at Immaculate Conception Church in Las Vegas, N.M.
Nevertheless, Salazar said last week, he will listen to what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says next month about communion and abortion rights politics.
“I really don’t have a position on that,” said Salazar, 80.
The twice-yearly gathering of bishops and archbishops is expected to take up whether political leaders and people in the public eye who support abortion rights should be allowed to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. The issue arises as President Joe Biden, a Democrat who has backed abortion rights, routinely attends Catholic services.
The matter points to the increasing delineation of the Democratic Party as “pro-choice” — or in favor of abortion rights — and the Republican Party as “pro-life” — or anti-abortion. It also reflects the division among Catholics over liberal and conservative views. Archbishop John C. Wester of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe said Thursday that tension has existed in the church for centuries.
Wester said he has never denied communion to a person and would do so only if a notorious sinner clearly sought to use communion to manipulate public opinion. He said as it stands, he wouldn’t want to politicize communion, but he will retain an open mind during the bishops’ June discussion by Zoom.
Wester said he didn’t like the fact that the question over politics and communion has become so public an issue.
“I can see where some people would raise the question,” he said. “I think it’s something that’s better handled by a bishop in his own diocese.”
The same issue arose at a Conference of Catholic Bishops session about 10 years ago, he said, and denial of communion was not endorsed. He said it would take two-thirds of the bishops to implement the concept, which would be difficult to obtain.
He also said the conference cannot issue mandates and can only make recommendations. The ultimate decision on whether a politician or public figure could receive communion most likely would involve his or her priest or the bishop in the region.
ABC News reported Biden was denied communion two years ago in a Catholic church in South Carolina. ABC also reported that in Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pa., a bishop in 2008 said he would not give communion to Biden, who was vice president at the time.
The Rev. Vincent Paul Chavez of St. Therese Little Flower Catholic Church in Albuquerque said in a statement that communion, or the Eucharist, “must never be used for a political purpose.”
Chavez said the Conference of Bishops was “lax in opposing many of the controversial policies” of former President Donald Trump. He cited as an example the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. But now conservative bishops want to go after Biden, he said.
A leading bishop in the matter, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, wrote in a letter published this month that Catholics prominently in the public eye “have a special responsibility,” and “by their false witness, other Catholics may come to doubt the Church’s teaching on abortion” and communion.
Cordileone said abortion is “a preeminent priority” for Catholics because it violates the right to life, which is the foundation for all other rights. He wrote that “the killing must stop. Please, please, please: the killing must stop.”
Harry Montoya, a former Santa Fe County commissioner who ran for Congress last year, said he converted from Democrat to Republican a few years ago when it became more clear that supporting abortion rights seemed nonnegotiable for the Democratic Party.
“I struggled with it for years,” Montoya said. “I feel liberated, I guess you could say, not having that on my conscience.”
He said an abortion rights stance is “totally against the teachings of the Catholic Church.” Montoya, 61, said Catholic politicians who support abortion rights are “leading souls down the wrong path.”
Michele Jackson of Santa Fe walked down the aisle and emerged from Mass early Friday morning at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The sound of birds came through the open door of the spacious, sunlit sanctuary.
Jackson, 56, said being Catholic supersedes being a politician, not the other way around. If Biden intends to continue receiving communion, she said, he should repent his abortion rights advocacy and attend confession to have it wiped away. And then he must live with a repentant heart against that sin, she said.
“Personally, I’m a very conservative Catholic,” Jackson said. “God has the power of life and death. We do not.”
State Sen. William Sharer of Farmington, an anti-abortion Republican, said people can repent for their sins and receive forgiveness. But that is not the case with politicians who continue to espouse “pro-choice” views, the Catholic said.
“There’s no repentance if I keep going out in public and saying, ‘I did this and I’m proud of it,’ ” said Sharer, 62. And that is especially true, he said, of a “mortal sin” like abortion.
The Pew Research Center last month surveyed 5,109 American adults about abortion and reported 59 percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 80 percent of Democrats and people who lean toward that party believed it should be legal in all or most cases, while 35 percent of Republicans responded that way.
Pew also reported that 55 percent of Catholics surveyed said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
In a Pew survey seven years ago, 37 percent of Catholics interviewed identified themselves as conservative, 36 percent as moderate and 22 percent as liberal. The remainder didn’t know.
State Rep. Moe Maestas, a “pro-choice” Catholic Democrat from Albuquerque, said he has never been threatened with denial of communion. But he said constituents who are adamantly “pro-life” have said: “You’re not a Catholic.”
“It’s the ultimate political football,” Maestas said. The “so-called pro-life movement … has divided the country. It has accomplished nothing.” He said the U.S. Supreme Court determined in 1973 that abortion was a constitutional right, and upholding the constitution is a lawmaker’s duty.
And “to pick one sin out of multiple sins” committed by people “just makes no sense,” he said.
State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat from Albuquerque, said several times while serving in the Senate, people have come up to him after controversial hearings and told him he didn’t deserve to take communion.
“They’re not my parish priest. They’re not my spiritual adviser,” said Ortiz y Pino, a 78-year-old Catholic. “It’s none of their business.”
He said there are “real issues of faith” out there, such as peace, service to the poor and spreading the word of God. It’s a shame, he said, so many in the church have become preoccupied with abortion. He said he didn’t know how it could rise to the level of “the preeminent issue” of the church.
“It’s all a perversion, what’s going on, of our Catholic faith,” Ortiz y Pino said.
He added that communion is “not a reward for good behavior. … It’s simply a person’s choice to participate in the sacramental union with their savior.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat and pro-abortion rights Catholic, couldn’t be reached for comment late last week. A spokeswoman said Lujan Grisham “has a very clear record on the issue of reproductive rights.”
The Rev. Bill Sanchez, who oversees the parish in Cerrillos, said the strict understanding of abortion is that it’s the murder of a human being. It is “the culture of death,” he said, and supporters of it shouldn’t receive communion.
He said a person in one of the parishes he served spoke publicly for abortion, and others in the community asked the reverend why the person would consider himself in communion with the church.
“I asked him please not to receive communion, at least when I was presiding,” Bill Sanchez said. “And he never did.”
Bill Sanchez said he believes life starts at conception. He believes the church has the responsibility for defining access to communion, especially for those living contrary to the church’s teachings. He said he would hope “pro-choice” Catholics would admit they don’t believe in the key “pro-life” tenet and that “they should say honestly that they’re not in communion with the Catholic Church.”
He said he doesn’t vote for a political party: “I vote for life.”
The Rev. Salazar in Las Vegas said he is anti-abortion but doesn’t believe a person should be singled out for exclusion from communion because of their position in society.
Salazar said he heard people talk about Trump’s failings and then added: “Yeah, but he’s pro-life.”
“What about the lies he tells?” Salazar asked. “What counts and doesn’t count?”
There’s too much tunnel vision in this country, he said. “If I want to be pro-life, I want to be pro-life in all areas,” he said, including opposing putting migrant children in cages on the border.
He said he has no list of who can take communion and who can’t — it’s not that simple.