The Biden 'confusion,' and Pope Francis in Iraq

The Friday Pillar Post

Happy Friday friends,

The signs are that we are turning the seasonal corner. Pitchers and catchers have already reported for spring training, and my local minor league team has announced a full, 60 home game, schedule for the year. 

After last year’s abomination of a major league season, with a universal DH foisted onto the National League in an act of spiritual vandalism that, mercifully, has not become permanent (yet), I am desperate for baseball, warm weather, and the prospect of something like normal life to return.

Of course, our long Lent of the coronavirus may, or may not, end in time for Easter and spring. But I think, for most of us, the 40 days leading up to Holy Week are just that little bit more full of longing and anticipation this year.

And that is not without its value, so long as we place our hope in God, and not the clowns running MLB.

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Next week, Pope Francis is heading to Iraq, home to one of the oldest, and most persecuted, Christian communities in the world. Ahead of that trip, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry talked to us about the importance of the pope’s trip, and what the future could hold for the country’s Catholics.

There has also been some news in US ecclesiastical affairs this week. 

We broke the news that the USCCB have voted for an online assembly this June. This follows a similar virtual session last November and a cancelled meeting in June last year. By the time the bishops reconvene in Baltimore this coming November, the bishops won’t have gathered in person for two years — that has an effect on how they are able to relate to each other, and are able to work together.

But if the U.S. bishops haven’t been able to meet as a group, things are carrying on at the local level. This week, Dallas became the most recent American diocese to announce a synod aiming to discuss how the local Church can better serve the evangelization in the third millennium. These U.S. synods are proceeding by the book, a far cry from the so-called binding synodal way being attempted in Germany, which, the Vatican has repeatedly warned, is closer to an (unauthorized) plenary council.

Speaking of plenary councils, the Church in Australia is having one. After a pandemic-enforced delay, it is set to kick off later this year. This week the council released a working document. “What’s a plenary council,” you ask. We’ve got you covered.

Also this week witnesses took the stand in Vatican City in a legal first for the city state. Two priests are on trial for accusations related to the sexual abuse of a minor in a preseminary located in the Vatican gardens. While there is, sadly, nothing very novel about such accusations, what is different here is the clerics are facing a civil criminal trial in Vatican City state, not just a canonical process. We have an explainer to get you up to speed on the case.

This week also saw continued coverage of the president’s Catholicism. The bishops still seem no closer to a consensus on how to handle the nation’s most visible Catholic, who is pressing for a dramatic expansion of abortion access and funding as his press secretary underlines for the media how “devout” he is.

The Biden confusion

In the weeks following the election in November, USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez noted the unique challenge Biden presents, being the head of a government with which the bishops must work, and also a Catholic publicly at odds with the Church on a range of fundamental issues, most notably the “preeminent priority” of abortion.

Gomez, and other bishops, have warned of the “confusion” which Biden’s situation could cause as he repeals the Mexico City policy one day, and presents himself for Communion the next.

In fact, there seems little room for confusion about Biden’s situation at all.

According to the well-established teaching of the Church, Catholic politicians who consistently advance the abortion cause are in a state of grave sin. Equally clearly established is the canonical requirement that Catholics in a public and obstinate state of grave sin be denied Communion.

Biden’s own local bishop in Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, has made it clear he has no intention of applying that discipline to Biden, repeatedly saying it would be the equivalent of putting “a gun on the table” in his dealings with the president. Gregory is, by no means, the only bishop to worry about “weaponizing” Communion as part of a political campaign and it is certainly true that the sacraments are neither bludgeons to be wielded, nor prizes for the perfect.

But it is equally true that the sacraments are the most important and vital treasures the Church possesses, and are not to be treated lightly. The Catechism and canon law do not insist on the denial of Communion to Catholics in a state of public grave sin as a penalty, legally speaking, but as a pastoral measure, because, as the Catechism says, taking Communion in such a state does a Catholic grave spiritual harm.

No one envies a bishop the inevitable criticism he would face for denying a sitting president the sacrament, and he would certainly be accused of “politicizing” Communion. But, the truth is, by refusing to apply the Church’s clear instruction, Communion is being politicized: The teaching of the Catechism, the discipline of canon law, and the pastoral priority of preventing a Catholic doing themselves serious spiritual harm are all being set aside out of explicitly political concerns.

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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?

Whichever of these it may be, the actual message the bishops are sending was written all over The Atlantic this week: whatever they may say about the body and blood of Christ, deep down, Communion is just a symbol for Catholics, really.

This is what Catholics and nonCatholics alike are already taking from the situation, and that is a witness against the sacrament for which someone will eventually have to account.

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Lasting the distance

It’s a funny business being a Catholic journalist. If you care at all about the Church, covering trials and scandals and the messy human realities of ecclesiastical life take their toll. 

Before turning my hand to journalism a few years ago, I worked as a practicing canon lawyer. I was kind of a hired gun, picking up marriage tribunal work and consulting on one-off projects like combining parishes or selling off a school. But most of my work was in clerical sexual abuse cases, either as an independent contractor to clean up a historical backlog for a new bishop, or, just as often, as a defense attorney. 

When JD asked me to come work for him as an editor in Washington, I honestly thought it would be a needed break from scandal and sin all day, every day. Two weeks later, McCarrick happened and you can read what I’ve been up to since.

It’s hard having your nose stuck in the worst parts of the Church’s very broken human aspects day after day, and, to be quite honest, I’ve always found Lent to be a deeply helpful season when dealing with this.

It’s important for me to remember, as I try to rein in the smoking and drinking and eating during a season of fasting, that I am every bit as much a creature of my own disordered appetites as anyone I might set myself up to judge over. 

Most important, I need to remember that my enemy is the Church’s enemy, and he is forever prowling around like a lion, seeking someone to devour. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not just “good practice,” the Church says, but weapons of spiritual combat in the real battle I ignore at my peril.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because no one asked me. But they have, of course, asked JD. They always ask JD.

“They” in this case the Aquinas Institute at Princeton, who are hosting a discussion with himself on the vocation of Catholic journalism. Yes, JD’s been called up to the Ivy League. The event on Monday is online and open to all, and I am certainly going to be watching.

My own petty jealousies to one side, there’s a reason I’ve twice quit my job to work with him: he is, sincerely, one of the most thoughtful, perceptive, and faithfully Catholic men I know, and this is going to be a conversation worth listening to. 

You can register here, and I would encourage you all to take a look, if for no other reason than JD, presumably as some kind of Lenten mortification, seems to have given them his highschool yearbook photo to use for the event page.

See you next week, and remember that thou art dust.

Ed. Condon

editor

The Pillar