This is a fascinating turn, and a show of principle by the bishops who voted to move forward with the measure. Joe Biden is just the second Catholic president in U.S. history and one who attends mass regularly. He’s a singular advertisement for the faith — in some respects.
But there’s a very important respect in which he isn’t and America’s bishops aren’t willing to cut him a break on it just because of his job.
You should know before we go any further, though, that it’s unlikely that Biden will end up being denied communion. The Vatican’s policy is that it’s up to a Catholic’s local bishop whether to provide him the Eucharist and the bishop of D.C., Wilton Gregory, has made clear that the president won’t be denied. On top of that, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops may not have the votes needed to approve a formal statement calling on Catholic politicians to be good exemplars of the Church’s teachings or else. Today the Conference approved the drafting of a statement that the total body will vote on sometime later this year. “The statement will be addressed to all Catholics,” according to the initial proposal, and should “include the theological foundation for the Church’s discipline concerning the reception of Holy Communion and a special call for those Catholics who are cultural, political, or parochial leaders to witness the faith.”
“Witness the faith” meaning, in this case, espousing pro-life views.
Two-thirds of the Conference will need to approve it to make it binding when the vote eventually happens. A motion at the start of this week’s proceedings to table the matter failed with only 59 percent opposed, though, per the NYT, a sign that the two-thirds needed might not be there in the end.
So Biden’s going to keep taking communion. The real significance of this move is the bishops signaling their willingness to wade into politics — with a Catholic president in their crosshairs, no less — and the potential for whatever they end up doing to spill over into other policy areas, ensnaring Catholic pols in a running debate over whether they should be eligible to receive the Eucharist or not. The Conference itself took to sniping at each other over politics in deliberating whether to draft the statement:
That subtext was made plain as the bishops debated the topic for more than two hours on Thursday: “I can’t help but wonder if the years 2022 and 2024 might be part of the rush,” Bishop Robert M. Coerver of Lubbock, in Texas, said…
“This is a Catholic president that is doing the most aggressive thing we have ever seen in terms of this attack on life,” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, criticizing those in public life who say they are devout but “flaunt their Catholicity.”
Bishops from places like Tyler, Texas, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, argued that the people in their churches wanted bishops to create the communion document. Bishop Donald J. Hying of Madison, in Wisconsin, said he speaks almost daily with Catholics “who are confused by the fact that we have a president who professes devout Catholicism and yet advances the most radical, pro-abortion agenda in our history.”
“Once we legitimate public policy-based Eucharistic exclusion as a regular part of our teaching office — and that is the road to which we are headed — we will invite all of the political animosities that so tragically divide our nation into the very heart of the Eucharistic celebration,” said Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego. “That sacrament which seeks to make us one will become for millions of Catholics a sign of division.” That’s one problem, that trying to exclude Biden or other Catholic pols from receiving the host will turn the process into a political game of sorts. It’ll also potentially create a political problem for the Vatican: “Biden could go visit the pope in Rome and go to Communion there, but not be able to go to Communion in the States,” said one priest. “This is not the headline that the church needs.”
As I say, the Conference doesn’t have the authority to bar Biden from communion. Only the Pope and his local bishop, Gregory, do. But the Conference can certainly make this awkward for the Vatican and the White House and it’s already succeeding:
Biden on Catholic bishops taking steps to deny Catholic politicians like him from receiving communion over support for abortion rights:
“That’s a private matter and I don’t think that’s gonna happen.” pic.twitter.com/8KFkvjk9Lu
— The Recount (@therecount) June 18, 2021
Here’s where my ignorance of Church dogma as an ex-Catholic is at risk of showing, but: Is there any reason why a recommendation that the Eucharist be denied to pro-choice Catholic pols wouldn’t also apply to politicians who buck Catholic teaching on other policy matters? Granted, abortion is special because it deals with life and death; the Church might understandably conclude that the moral imperative to oppose it is stronger than the imperative to, say, support exemptions from antidiscrimination laws for Catholic business owners who don’t wish to cater gay weddings. But there’s another life-and-death matter policy matter on which the Pope himself has taken a strong view, as recently as last fall:
Building upon this precedent, the abolition of the death penalty has always been among Pope Francis’ top priorities. In 2018, Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, a doctrinal manual used for teaching Catholic children and converts worldwide, to describe the death penalty as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” that is “inadmissible” in all cases.
However, the power of an encyclical is distinct in that it commands the highest authority of any published Catholic document. Officially placing death penalty abolition in the forefront of Catholic teachings, Pope Francis wrote, “There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.” In total, Fratelli Tutti referenced the death penalty twelve times, calling attention to the possibility of judicial error and the misuse of capital punishment as a tool of persecution or revenge.
Why would a Catholic Republican who’s pro-life but supports capital punishment be any more entitled to the Eucharist than a Catholic Democrat who’s pro-choice but opposes capital punishment? I respect the argument that abortion is about ending innocent life while capital punishment is about ending the lives of the guilty, but the Pope’s encyclical last year doesn’t dwell on that distinction. For the Church, life is life. It’s God’s prerogative to claim it and a Catholic’s duty to oppose the taking of it by a state executioner.
So if the Eucharist should be off-limits to Biden, should it also be off-limits to Marco Rubio? Dems like Ted Lieu want to know:
Dear @USCCB: I’m Catholic and you are hypocrites. You did not tell Bill Barr, a Catholic, not to take communion when he expanded killing human beings with the death penalty. You are being nakedly partisan and you should be ashamed. Another reason you are losing membership. https://t.co/kpIYRolnHD
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) June 18, 2021
According to Dave Weigel, there are 91 Catholic Democrats in the House and 67 Catholic Republicans and I’ll bet nearly all of them run afoul of Church teaching on abortion or capital punishment. This afternoon 60 Democrats issued a “statement of principles” pushing back against the Conference of Catholic Bishops while also tapdancing around their own support for abortion. Read that if you like, but the question will remain regardless: What’s the limiting principle to the new “no communion if you support policies that offend the faith” position? (Assuming the Conference has the votes to enact that position this fall, I mean.) Is it limited to abortion, or to abortion and capital punishment, or to those issues plus gay marriage and others?
Addendum (Ed): AP’s given us a good rundown on these developments, especially from a political perspective. Allow me to add a couple of thoughts. In the first place, this story seems overblown by the media as a rebuke of Biden in particular. The bishops are clearly concerned with all Catholic politicians who are misleading the faithful on abortion, as well as other matters — perhaps capital punishment more than most. They are also concerned over the flock itself, which has grown waaaaay too supportive of abortion, as well as some other heterodox positions. This isn’t just about Biden, although he might be a catalyst for this pushback.
Is it fair to ask whether this applies to a number of issues and not just abortion? Not really, not even capital punishment, even though Pope Francis has taken a hard line on it in his pontificate. Paragraph 2272 in the Catechism sets abortion apart as a particularly grievous break from the church, and it is the only departure in which excommunication is specifically prescribed:
2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life.
“A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,”76 “by the very commission of the offense,”77 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law.78
The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
The Catechism takes a position opposing capital punishment, but never mentions a bar to receiving communion (which is what excommunication means, among other consequences):
2267 Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, [Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
The Vatican wants Catholics to abide by all of the positions in the Catechism; that is its purpose, after all. To contradict the teachings of the church is to fall out of full communion with Catholicism. However, the total bar on abortion has a unique position in the Catechism; it’s quite literally the only teaching for which the immediate consequence is excommunication latae sententiae. In fact, it’s the only specific violation in which excommunication of any kind is an explicitly mentioned consequence, although paragraph 1463 does note that excommunication can be a consequence for “certain particularly grave sins.”
The Catholic Church treats abortion as one of the gravest of offenses, and is explicit about the consequences. The only real debate is what constitutes “formal cooperation.” Performing or acquiring an abortion obviously qualifies. The bishops are debating whether voting for laws that legalize and/or provide access to abortion, as well as advocating such positions, constitutes “formal cooperation.” It seems doubtful that they’ll go that far, but the bishops clearly want to use this moment to emphasize the issue. And the media is going to end up amplifying it no matter what they decide, which isn’t an entirely bad thing.
Update (Ed): Reader Mike Rathbone recalls that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI specifically declared while serving as prefect of the CDF that support for capital punishment did not amount to a reason to refrain from the Eucharist:
3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
As I wrote above, Pope Francis has taken a harder line personally on this issue, but it’s still not an excommunicating position.