Deny him Communion? Bar the door at Joe Biden’s parish? Or, perhaps, use our second Catholic president as a cautionary tale about failing to adhere to church teachings? The field might not be as wide open as one might think, although the Washington Post’s estimable religion reporter Michelle Boorstein covers the options well enough:
Having a U.S. president who attends Mass week after week and talks about his faith is powerful to millions of American Catholics. But to millions of others, a Catholic U.S. president enacting one policy after another in favor of abortion access is a source of shame. This conflict is now headed directly at the U.S. church’s leadership group, which plans a vote about it at its spring conference.
Catholic leaders, like their massive flock, are deeply divided about Biden, only the second U.S. president to come from the country’s largest faith group. Since his election, the increasingly loud right wing of the church has made clear that Biden cannot continue to expand abortion rights and call himself Catholic and go unchallenged.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Wednesday that the group will have a June vote “on the topic of Communion.” Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the USCCB, said the vote will be about whether, at a later date, bishops should draft a document on the topic. She said because no document has yet been written, it would be premature to discuss its potential contents.
As Cardinal Yoda once said, Begun, the Eucharist Wars have. However, they probably haven’t, and this effort to craft a response to Biden might be less than one presumes. The Eucharist Wars (or slapfights, more accurately) have been ongoing for at least a couple of decades. This very same issue came up in 2004 when abortion-supporting Catholic Democrat John Kerry ran for the presidency. Supposedly that prompted a “secret memo” from then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Emeritus) instructing Catholic bishops in the US to deny Kerry access to the Eucharist. According to Italian media, which isn’t the most reliable of sources, Ratzinger was pretty specific:
“Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia,” writes the Cardinal, “when a person’s formal co-operation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”
This apparently either didn’t happen or got ignored, and the latter seems almost unthinkable in the hierarchical Catholic Church. Individual bishops argued that Kerry shouldn’t present himself for communion, but the USCCB took no concerted action. Neither did they do so with Nancy Pelosi, or for that matter Rudy Giuliani. The conference has been divided on response to these occasions of scandal for many years.
The current effort might just be a process by which the conference can speak with one voice and act consistently on the matter. The previous examples were localized enough to allow the USCCB to procrastinate; Pelosi represents one congressional district, and Kerry didn’t win the presidency. The effort to craft a unified policy around this conflict became acute because Biden did win, and did so while proclaiming his “passionate” devotion to the Catholic Church.
Will that response be a bar to receiving the Eucharist? That seems very unlikely, and it’s doubtful that a national conference even has that authority, although a few bishops clearly prefer that option. For one thing, it would be nearly impossible to apply such a penalty; most churches use lay people to distribute communion thanks to consolidation of parishes and the lack of priests. These lay people, called Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, are not allowed to make value judgments on serving the Eucharist except maybe in very extreme circumstances. Most priests would be loathe to withhold communion to anyone in the middle of Mass, for that matter, especially when the president is in attendance. It has happened, but it’s very rare, and enforcement of such a policy would create more nightmares than it solves.
Practically speaking, the most stringent response realistically open to the USCCB is a declaration that Biden shouldn’t receive communion until he repents of his support for abortion. That’s not an excommunication but a rather public form of spiritual direction based on the risks of taking the Eucharist while not being in full communion with the church. The odds on that option as a united position from the USCCB seem pretty low too, as it might touch off a broader war within the parishes. As Boorstein points out, a significant number of Catholics are either with Biden or close enough to him on abortion (and same-sex marriage), and this might not be a fight the bishops want at the moment. Arguably, though, this is the fight they should want, given the centrality to our faith of the Eucharist, no matter what the current cultural temperature might be. This is The Church, after all, not a club.
So what can the bishops do? If I had to guess, I’d bet that the USCCB will use Biden as a cautionary tale about “cafeteria Catholicism” and publicly challenge Biden to change his position without explicitly mentioning the Eucharist in Biden’s personal context. That could come in the form of an official position that support for abortion in public policy goes against the Catechism (which it does, explicitly) and that Catholics in that position should not present themselves for communion. Don’t expect that it will include an explicit prohibition on voting for politicians who support abortion, but it might include a renewed emphasis on priorities that uphold the sacramental nature of life. The USCCB has put out messages on this point in the past while leaving voting choices to “prudential judgment,” but Biden’s win might press them to step up that emphasis in the future.
That won’t satisfy Catholic conservatives (or non-Catholic conservatives either), but it has the best opportunity for full buy-in among the American bishops, who are spread across the ideological spectrum. The divided and contradictory responses to these situations involving pro-abortion Catholic politicians undermine the unity of the church and the credibility of its leadership. The division is leading Catholics into another form of “cafeteria-ism,” choosing which bishops to follow and which to ignore. That is not sustainable for the conference or the church in America. This country is already divided enough as it is without allowing a schism among American Catholics.
Addendum: Boorstein misses the mark on this point:
The USCCB is akin to an industry group of equals and has no authority over bishops themselves; only the Vatican does. Under canon law, Catholics are under the direction of their local bishop, and Catholic leaders in both D.C. and Delaware — Biden’s two hometowns these days — have already said they will not deny him Communion, the holiest of Catholic sacraments that shows a believer’s union with the whole church and Jesus.
The part about the USCCB’s nature and authority isn’t quite accurate. Under Pope Francis, the Vatican has devolved significant authority to the national conferences. The Vatican wasn’t able to stop the USCCB from scolding Biden after the election, although the bishops did postpone the letter until after Francis had an opportunity to go first with his congratulations. The possibility of getting called on the carpet still very much exists, but this is an issue that fits within Francis’ devolved vision — a local issue that the bishops on scene would know best.
Update: The USCCB insisted earlier today that they had “nothing in the works” aimed at Biden and the Eucharist … directly. Looks like I bet correctly:
Recent reports that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops may at their spring general assembly press pro-abortion Catholic politicians not to receive Communion are unfounded, and at best ignorant of ecclesial structure, a source close to the conference has told CNA.
A source close to the USCCB told CNA April 29 that they believe such reports from the AP and the Washington Post are either “just totally ignorant of the Church’s structure,” or meant “to pressure the bishops into silence” regarding the Equality Act.
The USCCB working group also called for a teaching document on the Eucharist, CNA had confirmed.
The document should instruct the faithful about worthy reception of Holy Communion, the working group said, and it should also clarify that Catholic politicians have a special responsibility to uphold the Church’s teachings in public life. Catholic holders of public office should not present themselves for Communion if they contradict Church teaching on grave moral issues, and have been warned already by a pastor, the working group stressed.
According to the USCCB source, that “pastoral statement” will be accompanied by “individual bishops” who “are going to issue their own statements on eucharistic coherence.”
Something is clearly coming, but it won’t be aimed at Biden specifically. Everyone will understand its meaning and purpose, however.