Biden and the Bishops



In my years as a Catholic, I watched, riveted, as the priest elevated the host, the wafer as round and large and luminous as a distant moon. While he murmured the Eucharistic prayer, I thought about a gentle, scruffy, bearded, dark-skinned carpenter breaking flatbread for loyal friends, pouring wine from an earthen jug, letting that simple supper ease, for an evening, the tension they all felt rising. Whatever happened, he would be with them, he promised. He meant this simple supper as proof.

Sacrament is supposed to stay simple. Its rituals use natural, everyday elements—bread, wine, oil, water—to express pure forgiveness, a lifelong bond, an unbreakable unity.

But politics can break anything. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has resurrected the old argument about whether a pro-choice Catholic politician should be denied Communion. Its president, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, wants to address “the situation of Catholics in public office who support legislation allowing abortion, euthanasia and other moral evils.” Last Friday, the bishops voted (by a seventy-three percent majority) to move forward.

This will be a teaching document, Gomez insists. But in real-world terms, it will still make the second Catholic president in our history a test case.

Appalled, the Vatican tried last month to warn the bishops away from this course. Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote that any attempt to form a national policy, “given its possibly contentious nature, could have the opposite effect and become a source of discord.” He urged “extensive and serene dialogue,” first among the bishops and then with pro-choice politicians to see how they understood the church’s doctrine. And he urged the bishops not to look only at one category, political leaders, but to formulate a teaching about all Catholics. Communion should not be turned into a political weapon that would divide Catholics. Finally, he warned that “it would be misleading if such a statement were to give the impression that abortion and euthanasia alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching.”

Gomez pressed on.

Cynics say this is an effort to weaken both Biden’s presidency and Francis’s papacy. Those with a more generous cast of mind see a question of principle. Either way, it is hardly as straightforward as Gomez’s stated purpose, “to help people to understand the beauty and the mystery of the Eucharist.”

Communion is the climax of the Mass, the moment of shared faith toward which all the prayers and hymns build. When a Catholic remains in the pew, other churchgoers slant their eyes in that direction, wondering what grievous sin that individual committed and is waiting to confess.

Joe Biden does not believe he has sinned by supporting women’s reproductive rights. Conservative U.S. bishops disagree. They cite Canon 915, which forbids giving Holy Communion to certain individuals, including anyone who “obstinately persists in manifest grave sin.” The Catholic Church is consistent in holding abortion to be a grave sin, but many thinkers, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, say canon 915 was never intended to be used to coerce public figures into repentance.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit who is a senior analyst for the Religion News Service, warned journalists, “This is a stupid story for canonical, theological and political reasons.” First, the Conference does not have the authority to keep Biden from Communion anyway; that is up to his bishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory (who moved from the Belleville, Illinois, archdiocese to Washington). Gregory has already said he will not deny communion to Biden. Overriding his authority would require intervention from the Vatican, and it is unlikely the pope would cooperate. He was not best pleased when Gomez used Inauguration Day congratulations as an opportunity to chastise the new president, and he does not want dissent to rip apart Catholics in the United States.

“Second,” Reese wrote, “theologically, no one is worthy to go to Communion. We are all sinners, and it is God’s gracious kindness and love that invites us to the Lord’s table. We do not earn the right to Communion.”

Third, to those who say certain issues are so grave, Communion must be denied—which issues? And why would you deny Communion to politicians and ignore the thinking of every other Catholic in the country, many of whom are also pro-choice?

I wondered that too, but in fairness, public figures have the power to encourage or facilitate or fund abortion, euthanasia, and other procedures church doctrine abhors. If the church is to stick to its teaching, then politicians who want to preserve women’s reproductive rights are indeed aiding and abetting murder.

The Catholic church is as polarized as the nation, though. For liberal Catholics, this is not a sticking point; they either disagree with the teaching or place their emphasis elsewhere. For conservative Catholics, meanwhile, the abortion issue is not only central, but it represents an entire world view they feel is immoral.

At the meeting’s opening last Wednesday, Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of the St. Louis archdiocese made a motion to allow every bishop a chance to speak his mind about the document. Those eager for the document called this, no doubt accurately, a delaying tactic, and they voted down his motion.

When I listened to the virtual meeting stream for much of Thursday, so many bishops were given brief chances to speak that I wondered if they had reconsidered. Beneath all the back-and-forth about doctrine and teaching, though, what I heard were worries about a loss of credibility, eagerness to shore up the centrality of the Eucharist, fear of becoming a church of exclusion, nervousness about displeasing the Vatican, warnings that they had lost the narrative to the secular media, worry that the flock will not return in full force after the pandemic, a desire to restore the mystical power of a sacrament central to Catholicism and in so doing, draw more people into the fold.

It all felt terribly complicated.

In the last presidential election, the Catholic vote split almost fifty-fifty. In a recent Pew survey, about two-thirds of U.S. Catholics said President Biden should be able to receive communion. An earlier Pew survey found that one-third of U.S. Catholics do not even believe in their church’s doctrine of transubstantiation (that the bread and wine are more than symbolic; that they become Jesus’s body and blood). Sixty-seven bishops, about one-third of the conference, signed a letter asking Gomez not to pursue this issue. It has come up again and again, most recently in the early 2000s, when it was laid to rest by leaving the decision up to individual bishops. But Cardinal Raymond Burke (who led the Archdiocese of St. Louis for many years) has said that by canon law, it is a priest’s sacred responsibility, his obligation, to withhold Communion from pro-choice Catholic politicians.

Poor Jesus. He embraced lepers, hung with hated tax collectors and a woman we have chosen (with no scriptural basis whatsoever) to think of as a prostitute, chatted with the heretical Samaritans, honored those living in poverty or with horrific disabilities, and held no sinner at arm’s length. Those who claim him as their spiritual inspiration promptly began making rules about who was sinning and which sins were grave and who should be banished from their midst, and soon a massive body of canon law replaced any effort to imagine what Jesus would do.

There are times I wonder if we would give him communion.

A friend’s father went to Mass every day of his adult life—until Alzheimer’s descended. His family was then that told he could no longer receive Communion, because his mind was too foggy to understand what it meant. I have known women who finally divorced cruel husbands but did not have the money or savvy to finesse an annulment. They, too, were barred from Communion until the current pope finally said enough of that.

Make no mistake: Pope Francis is not pro-choice. He has consistently held up the church’s condemnation of abortion, euthanasia, and other messy biological issues in which people are tempted to, from the Catholic viewpoint, play God or contradict nature. But in his June 6 homily, he remarked that “the church of the perfect and pure is a room where there isn’t a place for anyone; the church with open doors that celebrates around Christ is, on the other hand, a large hall where everyone—the righteous and sinners—can enter.” That church’s communion “is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.” He does not want it weaponized.

Also, Francis has been gently trying to redirect U.S. Catholicism’s obsessive preoccupation with sexual reproduction (contraception, same-sex marriage, premarital sex, transgender issues, celibacy, divorce, abortion) and save a little energy to tackle climate change, refugees and migrants, unbridled capitalism and poverty.

Which I suppose is also a political decision.

Politics is about power and how it is used; identity and how it is defined; cohesion and how it is gained. The question at the root of these doctrinal arguments actually is a simple one: What is the role of a religion? To guide, teach, challenge, and explore, leaving behavior to the individual conscience, or to condemn and forbid in order to impose consistent beliefs and retain moral authority? Because once you set yourself up as knowing all the answers, you do expose yourself to charges of hypocrisy if you make exceptions, or if you target only certain individuals for exclusion.

Exclusion from a sacrament meant to unite.

I am starting to think we can only achieve unity in subsets of the whole. This is a big country, and Roman Catholicism is a big religion, and trying to impose a single world view on so many people at once no longer even feels possible. Attempts lead to fury, resentment, division, and the power plays of exclusion: Who is a real American? Who is a good Catholic? Does it perhaps make more sense to split these huge structures into smaller, more consonant groups?

Ah, but then they would lose power.