On Joe Biden and Judging Souls

The political season, alas, we always have with us now, but last week it took a turn in earnest.

Father Robert E. Morey, a courageous priest in South Carolina, denied former Vice-President Joe Biden Holy Communion owing to the longstanding public scandal of his support for unlimited abortion. To my mind when Biden, as vice-president, performed the wedding ceremony for two gay White House staffers, it was a cynical move for LGBT support, but far more importantly another brazen scandal demanding a response from the Church. He has been essentially defying the American bishops for decades, knowing that it’s highly likely they won’t dare put him on the spot.

Reactions to that priest’s act fell, as always happens, along the usual political lines. But this is not a political matter. It’s a question of whether the Church, as it claims, takes seriously the most serious things, namely the nature of the Eucharist and what it means for someone to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

There have been various dodges from the Church hierarchy on this matter. New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, for example, remarked that he would never judge the state of someone else’s soul. But that’s not what is involved in the Biden case and many others like it. The question is whether to allow someone who has publicly adopted positions – and acted on them – that are directly contrary to the teachings of the Church and constitute grave scandal – to go along just like any other Catholic.

Scandal does not mean, as it does in the tabloids, that you’ve done something spectacularly wrong. In Catholicism, it means a public stumbling block that confuses people, Catholic and not, about grave matters like abortion and God’s intentions in creating the two sexes.

Yes, as people sometimes argue, a known sinner may have been to Confession and, therefore, may receive in a state of grace. But someone who has created a serious and longstanding public scandal must do some public act of repudiation, both of his beliefs and acts. Otherwise, the scandal remains.


Dolan is hardly alone in using clichés to avoid necessary judgments, not of souls but of facts. Pope Francis set a bad example when he famously said early in his papacy, “Who am I to judge?” A question had been put to him by a secular reporter on the plane back from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro – not about homosexuality as such, but on a specific person: Bishop Battista Ricca, who was notorious for homosexual escapades in Uruguay and had been given a high post running the Casa Santa Marta where the pope resides and a position in a key Vatican finance office.

The question, then, was whether it was wise to employ a person with that background in such sensitive positions. A cliché that addresses a different question shows right away that the person has been put on an uncomfortable spot and wants to deflect rather than answer.

We’ve seen similar rationalizations on Biden from the usual figures. Fr. James Martin tweeted out that we cannot start excluding people from Communion on the basis of their politics. Otherwise, what of Catholics who don’t follow papal teaching on immigration, the death penalty, or the environment? “Where does it stop?” he asked, not very seriously, since he knows full well that this is a red herring .

Because it stops far short of the issues he raised; those are matters of prudential judgments, not fundamental principles. You may, for example, hold that reducing the use of fossil fuels via large public subsidies is the best way to deal with environmental questions. Or you may think – many informed people do – that spending on inefficient renewable sources of energy now is actually wasted money. Research into cleaner, more efficient technologies being preferable.

There is no one Catholic approach on the matter, and the same is true of immigration, poverty, and many more subjects.

On abortion, however, the Church has spoken unequivocally. In a notorious episode a dozen years ago, Cardinal McCarrick misrepresented a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger to the American bishops. He read only parts of it, making it appear (as John Kerry, another “pro-choice Catholic,” was running for president) that abortion was just one of a range of issues Catholics need to consider in voting.

In fact, Ratzinger said, quite forthrightly, that some issues are on a different plane than others. And abortion, which is the deliberate taking of innocent human life, is prominent among them.

Even Pope Francis, who clearly has no heart for fighting the culture war, has spoken of abortion as like “hiring an assassin” to solve a problem.

Yet we read among liberal Catholic outlets that fear for the fortunes of Catholic Democrats, that the pope has also said the Eucharist is a medicine for the ailing not a “prize for the perfect.” This makes sense – if you think that assassination is a disease, not a deeply evil choice, when it’s not sheer political cynicism.

Judging the good and evil in any person is best left to the Creator. Yet as we know – to our sorrow and annoyance – one of the most common attitudes on the Internet and in social media these days is to pronounce people, sometimes whole categories of people, angels or (more likely) devils based on one or two or three things about them.

When we were better instructed in Catholic Morals, this sort of behavior came with a stern warning label: Rash judgment. Not only does it often lead to injustice towards other people, it contradicts our daily, concrete experience of the people we meet, to say nothing of our own mixed selves.

But it is not rash judgment to make the determination that a politician with decades of countenancing the destruction of tens of millions of innocents in the womb should not present himself for Communion. Nor is it rash to deny him the sacrament when, in defiance of faith and reason alike, he presents himself anyway for the Bread of Angels.

More priests and bishops need to follow that example, and be supported by lay people in their parishes and dioceses. We might be surprised at what results.


*Image: Do This in Memory of Me by Istvan Csok, 1890 [Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.