Examining Joe Biden the Catholic is the story, not just what the bishops are doing

This post was originally published on this site

British singer Winston Marshall, the banjo player for Mumford & Sons, announced that he decided to leave the band. The move came months after he’d faced criticism over a tweet in which he praised journalist Andy Ngo on his recent book — “Unmasked” — about the roots and strategies of the political protest movement known as antifa.  

Marshall wrote an op-ed last Thursday for Medium under the headline “Why I’m Leaving Mumford & Sons” that is a commentary on the world we live in today.

This is the section of his essay that stood out most for me, in the context of how mainstream journalists are covering America’s Catholic president:

Though there’s nothing wrong with being conservative, when forced to politically label myself I flutter between “centrist,” “liberal” or the more honest “bit this, bit that.” Being labeled erroneously just goes to show how binary political discourse has become. I had criticized the “Left,” so I must be the “Right,” or so their logic goes.

Indeed, it is this “binary political discourse” that dominates our lives these days. It may be a result of social media — Marshall details how he was attacked for his initial tweet and later his apology — in a world where nameless and faceless trolls dictate the discourse.

This takes me to the ongoing fallout from the U.S. bishop’s vote to draft a document that addresses “Eucharistic coherence” continues to be debated. The proposal’s aim is to ultimately decide whether Catholic politicians, like President Joe Biden, should be denied Holy Communion.

The news coverage in secular media on this very complicated theological matter has been disappointing, sub-par even in some cases. It’s no surprise at a time when skilled religion reporters are as hard to spot as a unicorn on stories of this kind. Far too often, political desk reporters at major news organizations cover such religious/theological issues. Politics, after all, is what matters.

What’s important to remember is that as Catholics our faith is not a set of political positions that we hold on a variety of issues. Our faith is rooted in what Jesus said about God’s purpose and his will for every person. That has been transmitted to all of us in the gospels, through centuries of church tradition and Canon Law.

The news coverage regarding the Communion issue ignores all that and frames the debate as one between “conservative bishops” and “progressive politicians.” It makes the church appear intolerant, rather than a body upholding centuries of teachings. It is too binary. Tell that to author Garry Willis, whose recent New York Times essay arguing that the bishops are wrong about Biden and abortion makes him a Catholic truther.

The bishop vote reminds me of Marshall’s “binary political discourse” argument. The bishops who voted for such a document are “conservative” and “pushing a controversial Communion plan.” Biden, on the other hand, is the “most religiously observant commander in chief” since Jimmy Carter. In a New York Times world, Biden is “devout” and Mother Teresa is a “cult leader.”

Before the vote, my June 15 post pointed out what news organizations to read. Making my list was The New York Times, The Pillar and the National Catholic Reporter. All three were — and are — required reading as this story continues.

Overall, the news coverage in many outlets has been poor, but opinion pieces around the subject have not. Two in particular have given the proper context — and potential problems — from what the bishops and Biden are doing to one another.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a practicing Catholic, took on the issue in his June 22 column. This is how he presents the issue:

The justification for withholding communion is straightforward, however clouded by ideological disagreements. Both of our political parties take positions that put them at odds with Catholic teaching, but if abortion is what the Catholic Church (with good reason) believes it to be, the intentional taking of innocent human life, then it is a different kind of issue than the usual partisan debates. The legal regime favored by Democrats has permitted tens of millions of abortions since Roe v. Wade was handed down; no Republican failure to spend enough on health care or education has that kind of directly lethal consequence. This includes even Republican support for the death penalty, where the church’s position has evolved toward abolitionism: A handful of executions of people found guilty of serious crimes (there were 17 executions in the United States in 2020) is not commensurate with hundreds of thousands of abortions.

Withholding communion from politicians who are particularly implicated in those abortions, then, is both a political and a pastoral act. Political, because it establishes that the church takes abortion as seriously as it claims — seriously enough to actually use one of the few disciplinary measures that it has at its disposal. Pastoral, because the politicians in question are implicated in a uniquely grave and public sin, and taking communion in that situation is a potential sacrilege from which not only the Eucharist but they themselves need to be protected.

This kind of straightforward logic does not, however, make the plan to withhold communion from Joe Biden a necessarily prudent one. The first problem is that it is pastorally effective only if the withholding takes place, and in the structure of the church only Biden’s bishops (meaning the bishop of Wilmington, Del., or the archbishop of Washington, D.C.) and the priests under their authority can make that kind of call. So the most likely consequence of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issuing some sort of document is that Biden continues to attend Mass and receive communion from friendly priests and prelates, and the bishops as a corporate body, already weak and scandal-tarnished, look as if they’ve made a partisan intervention with no meaningful effect.

Douthat makes a very good point. Would such a document have any teeth?

It is true that withholding Communion would be “pastorally effective only if the withholding takes place” — something that’s unlikely in the “safe spaces” Biden typically attends Mass. Even Biden didn’t seem too bothered about it when asked on June 18 soon after the vote took place. In fact, his parish said they would not deny him Communion.

This is a wonderful argument, but one that puts the onus on Biden. The better question for him would be: “Why continue to take Holy Communion?” Certainly, that would result in a fascinating answer. The late actor Carroll O’Conner — famous for playing Archie Bunker in the 1970s sit-com “All in the Family” — spoke eloquently in a EWTN interview on the importance of the Mass to him and receiving the body and blood of Christ.  

Andrew Sullivan, in his latest Substack column, also took on the issue. In his piece, Sullivan, who is both gay and a Catholic, makes some excellent points. Sullivan is a Biden fan, but questions why the president’s Catholicism isn’t coming through stronger.

In all this classic Catholicism, however, Biden is a particular example of the American Catholic. Its strength is its compassion, and its vast diversity of class, race, gender, language and age; its weakness is its somewhat Protestant view of doctrine, which it can often treat as a repository of mere suggestions.

And so Biden, influenced by Catholic Social Teaching, has tragically blurred its essential distinction from Critical Race Theory. Yes, CST has a conception of “structural sin” — primarily deployed by liberation theologians as a critique of capitalism, and rehabilitated in some measure by Francis in his priority for the poor. But it is not rooted in atheism, as CRT is; it does not believe in race essentialism, as CRT does; it does not see the world as purely a function of a zero-sum power struggle between “white” and “nonwhite”, as CRT does; for Catholics, there is “neither Greek nor Jew” — there is only humanity. CST offers salvation in the after-life, while CRT is rooted in the Marxist belief that there are no souls, only bodies, and no life after death, merely death.

On the issue of abortion and Biden’s ever-changing views on it, Sullivan writes this:

On abortion, the taking of life from the most vulnerable human beings in the world, the unborn, Biden has also shifted in ways he has never really explained. It is possible, I believe, for a Catholic to defend the right to abortion in a free and pluralist society, especially given that it occurs inside a woman’s body, while lamenting that abortion takes place at all, and speaking candidly about its intrinsic moral evil. But Biden has never even gone so far as Bill Clinton’s view that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” It is also possible to allow its legality without having the government actively fund it, which was Biden’s position only a couple of years ago, and which he has now reversed. He explains this by saying that it will help the poor get abortions — which is an admirable concern for the poor, but not, exactly, for the unborn.

Sullivan rightly bemoans something that could truly unite the nation, arguing that he wished Biden “could see more clearly that it is his Catholicism that could unite a political party around a compassionate center, rather than the neo-Marxism he has partly enabled.”

The Catholic press, meanwhile, hasn’t been shy about covering this issue in its editorial pages. On the doctrinal right, the National Catholic Register, in its June 25 editorial, made the following point:

Whenever one of Biden’s pro-abortion actions is called into question at a press conference, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has been instructed to sidestep the question by stating that Biden is a “devout Catholic” who regularly attends Mass, thereby implying that no contradiction exists between the president’s promotion of legal abortion and the teachings of his Church.

Herein lies the most damaging witness: Biden publicly claims to be devoutly Catholic while calling the obvious contradiction his policies have with his Church’s teaching a private matter. Countless Catholics who aren’t so public in defying Church teaching are encouraged to do the same.

Catholic News Service, in its commentary section, sought to clarify what the secular press failed to do. Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief at CNS, made the following point:

At the June meeting, after long debate, the bishops approved the drafting of the document, which will focus on “the Eucharist as a mystery to be believed, a mystery to be celebrated and a mystery to be lived,” according to Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, chair of the bishops’ doctrine committee charged with its drafting.

What has confused matters is that there has been a vocal campaign for months to disallow President Joe Biden from receiving Communion because of his policy positions on abortion.

Such a decision is solely the prerogative of the local bishop, however, and President Biden’s local bishop, Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory, has already made it clear that he will not do that.

Because of this campaign, and because several bishops during the June 17 debate mentioned President Biden and abortion as a reason such a document is needed, many reporters assume that the planned document is an explicit rebuke of President Biden.

Even the theologically progressive America tried to douse water on the “Francis is a liberal” theme. In a June 28 column under the headline “Pope Francis is not a liberal! (He’s not a conservative either.),” this is what James Keane, the magazine’s senior editor, argued in the opening to his piece:

Pope Francis is not a liberal!

He is not a conservative either. In fact, like most of his predecessors (and many of his brother bishops), Pope Francis does not land coherently anywhere on the axes of American politics. And we should be happy about that.

But that doesn’t stop most of us, including many journalists, from labeling him, in part because using the words “liberal” and “conservative” saves space and intellectual energy. For example, on June 20, an article in The New York Times began with this sentence: “Pope Francis and President Biden, both liberals, are the two most high-profile Roman Catholics in the world.”

I suspect both Pope Francis and Mr. Biden would be amused at the pairing (and Lady Gaga might quibble with “most high-profile”), considering that many think Mr. Biden won the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 by positioning himself as the centrist candidate in a field of avowed liberals. Similarly, Pope Francis was considered for much of his life by many in his own religious order, the Jesuits, to be a traditionalist and a bit of an autocrat: The buzzword on the day after his election among many progressive Catholics was cuidado, or “caution.”

Careful readers of America may note that usage of the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” and even “moderate,” in an ecclesial context is a violation of a central editorial principle established by our editor in chief, Matt Malone, S.J., eight years ago. We try not to describe the church in ways that suggest that ecclesial debate is simply an extension of American secular politics. I am getting away with it here because I am denying the value of those labels in reference to the pope.

In turn, the bishops themselves sought to clarify their position. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the USCCB is “now de-emphasizing direct confrontation” with Biden. It’s that some bishops had mentioned Biden by name, but it was never only about the president. This was the simple narrative, binary logic of the mainstream press that framed the debate this way from the start.

In a Q&A posted to the USCCB website, the bishops made the following clarification:

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic – regardless of whether they hold public office or not is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Following this clarification, it would also be effective if journalists stopped framing stories around politics and instead asked Biden questions about his faith and how it translates into political action. The bishops are no longer the story here — at least not until a document is finally drafted and released. For another take on where this story goes next, see the recent GetReligion podcast and tmatt’s post: “What are the future news hooks as U.S. bishops wrestle with Holy Communion?

For now, Biden is the big political story, with an emphasis on the word “political.” Unfortunately, it may be the half of the story we never get to read in the mainstream media.

FIRST IMAGE: From Pixy.org, “Eucharistic Body of Christ in Church.”

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