Bishops lack communion over Biden, abortion, and sacrament

News: US bishops, Joe Biden

One month into his presidency, the Catholicism of Joe Biden continues to be a focus of media attention, with religious and secular press noting the tension between the president’s faith and some of his administration’s policies, most notably on abortion. 

A recent article in the Atlantic noted ongoing debate among Catholics about Biden’s reception of Communion, despite longstanding guidance from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that Catholic politicians who advance legal protections or funding for abortion are in a state of grave sin, and should not receive the Eucharist.

In the weeks since his inauguration, Biden has leaned into both his Catholic identity and his campaign pledges to support abortion funding and legal protection. 

Since arriving in Washington, the president’s trips to Mass in Georgetown have become part of the White House press pool’s weekly schedule, and an otherwise secular media have praised the cadence of faith in his rhetorical style. 

At the same time, Biden has acted swiftly to roll back executive orders and policies designed to limit funding for abortion, a subject which the U.S. bishops have repeatedly identified as the preeminent priority for Catholics in the political sphere.

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During the first press briefing after the inauguration, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Biden’s plans to repeal the Mexico City policy, which blocked U.S. aid dollars from going to organizations which promote abortion.

Although the issue of Biden’s faith was not raised in the question, Psaki responded that "I will just take the opportunity to remind all of you that [the president] is a devout Catholic and somebody who attends church regularly.”

Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, DC, Biden’s local bishop, has said he will not deny the president Holy Communion. The cardinal has compared the prospect of denying Communion to placing a “gun on the table” during conversations with the president. 

Biden’s other bishop, in his home state of Delaware, Bishop William Malooly, has said similarly that denying Communion to politicians would “politicize” the Eucharist.

The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharistic sacrifice is the “source and summit” of the Christian life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also teaches that “anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion.” 

The Catechism quotes St. Paul, who noted the grave spiritual harm which reception of Communion in a state of sin can do to a Catholic: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.”

The Church’s disciplinary laws follow Catholic doctrine on the subject.

Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law provides that Catholics “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” are to be denied Communion. 

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and later Pope Benedict XVI, told the U.S. bishops that the canon could apply to politicians who advocated legal protection for abortion, if they were warned by their bishops to stop their advocacy, and declined to do so.

Denial of the Eucharist under those circumstances is not formally a penalty in the Church’s law, but instead a pastoral directive aimed at preventing a person from doing harm to themselves spiritually, and from fostering scandal in a community.

Bishops are free to exercise judgment over who receives the Eucharist in their territories, even as concerns Catholics who live in other dioceses.

But while the norms exist, few U.S. bishops have formally prohibited prohibited pro-abortion politicians from receiving Holy Communion. 

In 2019, Biden was denied the Eucharist by a priest in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina. A joint policy of that diocese and others in Georgia and the Carolinas prohibits “Catholic public officials who consistently support abortion on demand,” from receiving the Eucharist. 

But apart from that incident, the action of bishops on the issue has been mostly rhetorical.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City said last week that Biden “should stop defining himself as a devout Catholic, and acknowledge that his view on abortion is contrary to Catholic moral teaching.” 

Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco made a similar caution to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in January.

Neither bishop has acted publicly to prohibit the reception of Holy Communion in their dioceses by the politicians they chastised.

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Other bishops have said explicitly they would not apply the Church’s law to pro-abortion politicians.

In 2019, facing questions about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed into law that year one of the most expansive abortion acts in the country, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that publicly barring politicians from receiving Communion could be counterproductive, and be used as a kind of badge of honor by those politicians.

More recently, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, has said denying politicians Communion would be a “weaponization of Eucharist.”

Some Catholics, pushing back against Biden’s policies on abortion, have called for the president to be excommunicated.

In the Church’s law, excommunication is a formal legal penalty that can only be imposed or declared after the commission of a specifically delineated canonical crime, or delict.

Canon law provides that the penalty of excommunication can be incurred by “a person who procures a completed abortion.” 

Some have suggested that Biden, whose policies would enable access or funding for abortions, fits the bill. But it is the settled legal praxis of the Church that this law only applies to those who materially cooperate in procuring a specific abortion, not those who participate in making abortion more available generally.

There is also a movement among some canon lawyers to suggest that pro-abortion politicians could be excommunicated for the canonical crime of heresy, which is defined in the Church’s law as “the obstinate denial or doubt after baptism of some truth which is to be believed with divine and Catholic faith.”

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Teachings which “are to be believed” are often called “credenda” teachings. They are best understood as the most fundamental or important, like the articles of faith in the Creed, or the Marian, Christological, and sacramental dogmas of the Church. 

But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has also included as “credenda” teaching “the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being,” a category which includes abortion. 

That inclusion forms the basis of an argument that Catholic politicians who suggest that abortion is a kind of healthcare, or otherwise cast into doubt the moral gravity of abortion, could be making a kind of manifested denial of Catholic doctrine, and therefore committing the crime of heresy.

Whatever the merits of the argument, it does not seem to apply to Biden. Even while the president has has repeated his pledge to enshrine the full extent of Roe v. Wade in federal law, essentially precluding any state lmiitations on abortion, and acted swiftly to roll back policies designed to limit funding for abortion, he has not publicly affirmed abortion itself as a moral practice, or specifically denied the Church’s teaching on the matter.

On the contrary, when Biden has spoken about abortion and his faith, he’s been very specific about what the Church believes, and that he believes it:

“I accept my Church’s position on abortion as a what we call ‘de fide doctrine,’” Biden said in 2012. While he has since adopted a more explicitly pro-abortion platform, he has not repudiated that statement, suggesting instead that he believes it wrong to impose his Catholic beliefs on a secular nation.

Catholics bishops, for their part, have said that abortion’s immorality is not merely a religious issue, but a matter of basic human rights.   

Before Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. bishops established a working group to address the “unique” challenges of a Catholic president who appears to dissent from Church teaching on key issues, including the scope for confusion his public witness as a Catholic could cause. 

Among the projects planned by that committee was a statement on the question of Holy Communion. Work on the statement has reportedly been transferred to the doctrine committee of the USCCB. There is no expected timeline for its release.

Editor’s note: This report initially said the Diocese of Charleston was within the state of North Carolina. You are well within your rights to judge us for making such a dumb mistake. The error has been corrected.