Biden and Communion

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People who think pro-choice Catholic politicians like President-elect Joe Biden shouldn’t be given Communion are often accused of politicizing the sacrament. But the real politicizers are the accusers, who introduce politics into the discussion. The accused aren’t motivated by politics but by reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, much as St. Paul was in cautioning the Christians of Corinth against receiving it unworthily. (cf.1 Cor 11:27)

It helps to see these matters in the broader context of respect and disrespect for the Eucharist generally. There is a neat formulation of the problem in the newly published first volume of Cardinal George Pell’s Prison Journal. Speaking of the too-casual reception of the sacrament, which is common today, he says: “Every type of Catholic should realize there is an exclusion zone around the Eucharist, where adults without faith and without basic good practice should not enter.”

Then he quotes a prison warden’s explanation of why a prominent Catholic criminal attended Mass without receiving Communion. “Because he has faith,” the warden said.

The issues here are hardly new. In 2004, the U.S. bishops wrestled with them in reference to Sen. John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic who was the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate that year. Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, chairing a committee charged with considering the matter, ventured the opinion that refusing Communion to Kerry would “turn the Eucharist into a perceived source of political combat.” In the end, the bishops left it to individual ordinaries to decide whether to give Communion or not in light of “established canonical and pastoral principles.”

Before the vote, the episcopal conference had received a letter advising them on how to handle the issue from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. McCarrick declined to release this document, saying Cardinal Ratzinger wanted it kept confidential. Eventually, of course, the letter was leaked – apparently in Rome – and it turned out that it said a minister of Communion “must refuse to distribute it” to someone guilty of “obstinate persistence” in serious public sin – a description that now, as well as then, surely fits Catholic politicians who support abortion.

Fast forward to last October. The Communion issue briefly made the news when a priest in Florence, S.C. refused to give Communion to then-candidate Biden. “Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church,” while advocacy for abortion places someone “outside of Church teaching,” explained Father Robert Morey.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington sees it differently. In Rome in late November for the consistory at which he and others were received into the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Gregory recalled that as President Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years, President-elect Biden regularly attended Mass and received Communion. “I’m not going to veer from that,” he told Catholic News Service.


Two weeks earlier, as the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (held virtually because of the pandemic) drew to a close, conference president Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles announced that in response to bishops’ requests he had established a working group to take another look at this situation.

The working group is headed by USCCB vice president Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit and includes the chairmen of several USCCB committees, among them the doctrine and pro-life chairmen. Explaining the reasoning for setting up the group, Archbishop Gomez remarked of Biden that he supports “good policies” on things like race and immigration, but policies opposed to “what we hold dear as Catholics” on abortion.

There is no knowing what the working group will come up with or when, but it’s a reasonable guess that, in the end, it will adopt the bishops’ 2004 conclusion that left it to ordinaries to decide the Communion question locally. This seems all the more likely in that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has no canonical authority to tell individual bishops what to do about something like this, but can only offer suggestions.

Even someone who disagrees with Cardinal Gregory’s determination not to “veer” from giving Communion to pro-choice Joe Biden should be able to appreciate the situation the new cardinal is in. It wouldn’t be easy to call out the President of the United States on a matter of religious practice, much less refuse him Communion.

Furthermore, it may well be that those bishops, not few in number, who for years have humored Biden and others like him instead of reminding them – privately, politely, but strongly, as an exercise of the pastoral office – that they are terribly, disastrously wrong, and endangering their eternal salvation, bear more responsibility by now than the pro-choice politicians themselves.

But when all is said and done, the heart of this problem remains. It’s a grave scandal being given to Catholics – who are led to conclude that, when push comes to shove, neither the evil of abortion nor the holiness of the Eucharist is all that important to certain Church leaders.

On that point, give the final word to Cardinal Pell, still speaking about the problem posed by loose practice in regard to the Blessed Sacrament:

It will be very difficult pastorally to reform the “open house” inclusive approach, because many regard the reception of Communion as being like accepting a biscuit and a cup of tea. . . .In an age of religious indifference and ignorance, the indiscriminate reception of Holy Communion is against the tradition and bad for the spiritual health of the Church.

Wouldn’t you think it was time and then some for everyone – popes, bishops, priests – to do something about that?


*Image: The President-elect leaves Mass at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware, 11/8/20 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity (Ignatius Press).