Whether some Catholic politicians can receive Holy Communion has been a matter of debate for decades.
The election of Joe Biden — a man constantly identified as as a “devout Catholic” by his staff and, thus, the mainstream press — has put a hot spotlight on this familiar issues. The key is whether his Catholic piety is compatible with his statements and actions that are rooted in progressive politics.
This issue has come into greater focus during Biden’s first 100 days in office. The Atlantic, in a piece written by Emma Green, detailed how some key U.S. bishops — and “many conservative laypeople” — think the president should be denied access to Holy Communion.
Green’s well-reported feature detailed the ongoing battle between Catholics across this country and the current occupant of the Oval Office, a fight that’s expected to worsen over the next four years. Here’s the thesis:
If some Catholic leaders had their way, Biden wouldn’t be able to take Communion at all. A committee of bishops recently gathered to examine the “difficult and complex situation” of a Catholic president who publicly supports expanding abortion rights, contrary to the faith’s teachings. Later this year, a representative of that group will likely offer guidance on Biden’s future ability to take Communion. For now, the cardinal who oversees Washington, D.C., Wilton Gregory, has said the president is welcome to attend any Mass in his archdiocese. “I don’t want to go to the table with a gun,” Gregory told Religion News Service.
Biden, the second Catholic president in American history, is a man of faith who cites Saint Augustine and hymns in his speeches and carries a rosary that belonged to his son Beau. His presidency is a historic opportunity for the Catholic Church. But he’s also a symbol of a Church at political war with itself; Catholic voters are nearly evenly divided between the parties, and the bishops have been squabbling in public over how to deal with his administration. Sinners abound in politics. The question facing the Catholic hierarchy is whether to offer the most famous Catholic sinner in America an invitation to closeness with God, or to withhold Communion until the president falls fully in line with his Church’s teachings.
The story opened with Biden’s arrival at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. to attend Mass, the same place he attended when vice president.
A key detail: Father Kevin Gillespie “checked with Gregory” to make sure he had the cardinal’s backing. This is how the piece describes what happened next:
The sacrament of the Eucharist — through which Catholics believe they experience the presence of Jesus by consuming his body and blood, transformed from a wafer and win — should not be used as a carrot or a stick.
“It’s really an encounter with God,” Gillespie said. For Biden, this “sacred and intimate moment” is a “gift that enhances his faith, and it energizes his witness,” and “we most certainly encourage him to improve his intimacy with God through the Eucharist.”
And yet, Holy Trinity has gotten more than 100 angry phone calls, letters, and emails in recent weeks, protesting Gillespie’s choice to offer Biden Communion. In supporting same-sex relationships and “facilitating the evil of abortion,” the president “has demonstrated that he is not in full communion with the Catholic Church,” wrote the retired archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, in a December article in First Things, a small magazine of conservative and religious thought.
“The president should stop defining himself as a devout Catholic,” Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann, the chair of pro-life activities for the bishops’ conference, recently told The Catholic World Report, after arguing during this year’s virtual March for Life that integrity requires Catholics to skip Communion if their actions violate Church teachings. On Inauguration Day, the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference, José Gomez, put out a lengthy, ambivalent statement, declaring Biden’s piety “inspiring” while condemning him for advancing “moral evils.”
It would be a potential public relations nightmare for the White House and a president who ran on his faith while the mainstream news media continued to push the storyline that Biden is “devout” without ever quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
It makes one wonder whether Biden — with help from his bishop — needs “Catholic safe spaces” in order to worship or make a policy announcement. Those safe spaces apparently also extend to avoiding solo news conferences and not being mocked on Saturday Night Live. A question for reporters: Are some Washington, D.C., parishes “safe” while others are risky?
Let’s stick to faith. Biden, in office for less than two months, has already earned rebuke from some U.S. bishops and Catholic groups over his stance on abortion and issues tied to religious freedom.
As for Gregory, he is enforcing a rule that dates back to 2004, when Democrats nominated Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic who was politically liberal and supported abortion, for president. A committee of American bishops petitioned the Vatican at the time for advice on the issue of Communion. What happened next remains key. The committee’s leader at the time was Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, D.C. The ex-cardinal has since fallen into disgrace following a decades-old sex-abuse scandal involving teens and seminarians.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent McCarrick a private letter. In it, Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, argued that if a vocal supporter of abortion continued to present themselves for communion — against the advice of their local bishops — the “minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.”
McCarrick, without releasing the letter, endorsed a compromise since it would be wrong to “turn the Eucharist into a perceived source of political combat.” This created what some Catholic commentators have called the “McCarrick doctrine,” creating tensions that have never faded. Biden’s election could bring with it some changes. The Pillar reported Wednesday that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops could be given a vote as early as this June on whether to draft and publish a document that addresses the question of administering the Eucharist to pro-abortion Catholic politicians.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that in November 2019, in the middle of the primaries, a priest in South Carolina refused to give Biden Communion. In an opinion piece at the time, Thomas Petri, a priest, professor of moral theology and the dean of the faculty at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., made the following observation in USA Today:
Sometimes Catholics get embroiled in sinful choices and a sinful lifestyle. Trapped in a cycle of vice and addiction, they can still frequent confession, receive absolution, make slow progress, and all the while they receive Holy Communion regularly.
But some Catholics can become callous to concerns of family, friends, or pastors. This is always distressing to everyone involved. The situation is worsened in the Church’s view when a person is publicly obstinate in grave sin and insists that there’s nothing immoral about what they do. Canon 915 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law requires those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
The reason the Church might bar such persons from Holy Communion is precisely because their sin is not only grave but it’s also public (i.e., “manifest”) and they’re obstinate in holding it. Such a person is no longer living in communion with the Church, so allowing this person to receive Holy Communion would also be a lie.
In August 2020, J.D. Flynn, in an analysis piece for Catholic News Agency, made the following astute observation regarding then-candidate Biden — using Canon Law to put the issue into context:
Can pro-choice politicians like Biden receive the Eucharist? And will anyone stop Biden if he approaches the communion line?
The norm of canon 915 itself is clear: Catholics “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” But debate over that canon, and its application to pro-choice politicians, has vexed the Church in the U.S. every election year since John Kerry’s presidential campaign, and often in between elections, too.
Writing recently in The Pillar, Ed Condon addressed the Communion issue under the headline “The Biden Confusion.”
Here’s the main takeaway in a piece that also cited Green’s recent Atlantic reporting:
There’s no “confusion” about what the Church teaches, or what Biden believes. The president himself said it perfectly clearly during a 2012 debate.
“I accept my Church’s position on abortion as a what we call ‘de fide doctrine,’” he said. “Life begins at conception, that’s the Church’s judgement and I accept it in my personal life. But… I just refuse to impose that on others.”
The only confusion being caused is by the bishops’ collective inaction: What are Catholics supposed to make of Biden’s very public example, and their shepherds’ collective non-response?
Is it Biden’s position on abortion, an objective state of grave sin and their self-stated preeminent priority, which doesn’t matter?
Or is it Biden’s spiritual welfare which his pastors have moved to the back burner, content to see him “be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” and “eat and drink judgment upon himself,” as the catechism says, rather than risk alienating his administration?
Biden’s Communion compromise may rule parts of D.C., but there are exceptions. Green’s story ends with this paragraph:
The political divide among American Catholics is so sharp, you can see it on a map of the capital region. Just a few cobblestoned blocks away from Holy Trinity, across the Key Bridge, lies the Diocese of Arlington, widely known in Washington as the preferred home for conservative Catholics who work in politics. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch supporter of the death penalty, attended Mass at Saint Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls. Sean Spicer, who as press secretary defended President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration, has been active at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Old Town Alexandria. These stances, and many of the policies pushed by the Republican Party, also conflict with Catholic teachings, but the bishops never called on parish priests to deny these men Communion. Everyone who seeks the Eucharist is a sinner in need of God’s grace.
This paragraph provides a roadmap for Biden to avoid certain parishes in favor of Sunday Mass “safe spaces.”
The bigger story here is not just the Secret Service serving as an advance team to ensure the president’s safety, but the preparation that goes into ensuring Biden isn’t denied Communion in front of parishioners and the press.