The Reverend Robert E. Morey of Saint Anthony Catholic Church in Florence, South Carolina, denied former vice president and leading Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden Communion during a Sunday morning Mass in late October. Rev. Morey told a local newspaper that Biden, who was in Florence for a campaign stop, was denied Communion because of his stance on abortion. “Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church. Our actions should reflect that,” said Morey. “Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.”
Cue the outraged responses. PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff in a November 1 interview sympathetically asked Biden if he was “offended” by Fr. Morey’s actions. Biden responded by explaining that while it was “a private matter… it’s not a position that I’ve found anywhere else, including from the Holy Father, who gives me Communion.” In a later statement, Biden further explained: “I practice my faith… but I’ve never let my religious beliefs, which I accept based on Church doctrine… impose that view on other people.”
Progressive faith-based political group Faithful America, in turn, crafted a petition condemning Fr. Morey. It reads, in part: “Holy Communion is not a tool for punishing political opponents. We have seen this despicable behavior before, used by right-wing clergy to attack John Kerry and Tim Kaine.” Kerry and Kaine, two other Catholic Democratic politicians, also previously encountered challenges by Catholic clerics to their eligibility for Communion.
Some senior Catholic prelates also seemed unsupportive of Fr. Morey. Biden’s home diocese of Wilmington released a statement saying that Wilmington Bishop William Francis Malooly “has consistently refrained from politicizing the Eucharist, and will continue to do so.” Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York City was a bit more restrained in his response, declaring: “We also remember Pope Francis: ‘I personally can never judge the state of a person’s soul.’ So, it’s difficult, that’s what I’m saying. I’m not there as a tribunal, as a judge in distributing Holy Communion.”
Is His Eminence correct in saying that priests have no authority to execute judgment in distributing the Eucharist? Not according to Edward Peters, professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. In an op-ed for The Hill, Peters observes that Canon 915 “positively requires ministers of holy communion, especially pastors, to withhold the sacrament from Catholics ‘obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin’.” Thus, as Peters explains, “public support for abortion, its preservation in law, and/or its public funding, are sinful acts under Catholic moral analysis.” Biden would seem to fit that description, with his promises to codify Roe v. Wade and eliminate the Hyde Amendment, a federal law that bars federal dollars from being used to pay for most abortions. It is for such reasons that Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton in 2008 warned Biden that he would be refused Holy Communion precisely on this issue, as did Archbishop Charles J. Chaput (then of Denver, now of Philadelphia).
Apart from canon law, there is a more fundamental issue at stake with the debate over the Biden Communion dustup. The presidential candidate, time and again, has argued that a Catholic’s beliefs are a “private matter” that cannot be imposed on other persons. According to such reasoning, Catholic organizations would presumably likewise be prohibited from exercising their faith in the public square in any way that might affect others. No wonder during Biden’s time as vice president we saw the federal government go after the Little Sisters of the Poor for their resistance to the Health and Human Services mandate regarding contraception.
The fact of the matter is that Catholicism is distinctively not private. It is responsible for hospitals, schools, universities, adoption agencies, homeless shelters, and countless other organizations that have a direct impact on the American commonweal. Some of these institutions, thankfully, are still explicitly and unashamedly Catholic, which means that they not only subscribe to Church teaching, but in various ways “impose” those beliefs on those who enjoy their manifold services. Students who attend Catholic schools—the good ones—will be subject to Catholic teaching on sexual morality. People who want to enjoy faithfully-Catholic medical care will not be able to receive certain services, like abortion or euthanasia.
Catholic Christianity has always exhibited this peculiar public character. This is why early Christians so defiantly refused to offer up even the smallest sacrifice to Caesar as a sign of patriotic citizenship. Those martyrs knew that what they did with their bodies, in the public square, had eternal consequences. In our own day, for example, Catholic adoption agencies refuse to place children with homosexual or transgender parents—and increasingly suffer government scrutiny or attack for such positions. A solely private faith is not faith. Jesus Himself warns: “So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33). To be clear, denying Christ’s Church is denying Christ.
For Biden—or any politician, Republican or Democrat—to claim that his or her Catholic faith has no bearing on their role in the public square is to effectively renounce the Church. Let the reader understand that this does not mean that Catholic politicians are expected to promote the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity, or papal infallibility. But it does mean that they cannot violate Church teaching by endorsing or promoting policies that violate Catholic dogma. Moreover, in the case of abortion, there is a philosophically reasonable and scientifically demonstrable reason to oppose abortion, which doesn’t rely on dogma: abortion is the murder of an unborn child. Just as a Catholic politician can censure theft both because of his faith and because it violates the natural law that all persons are subject to, so may one reject abortion.
In the United States, American Catholics seem to think access to the Eucharist is a right alongside life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Elsewhere, Catholics tend to be more circumspect. This was especially apparent when I served in Afghanistan and participated in Masses with French, Italian, and Spanish soldiers who did not go up for Communion—perhaps they refrained because of some permanent lifestyle decision, an unconfessed mortal sin, or some misgiven Jansenist idea about sin. Certainly Christ, and His Church, want them to be able to receive. Yet, in this case, the soldiers seemed to know, as the Church teaches, that certain moral decisions preclude receiving. And, so, they conscientiously abstained, even though afterwards they’d once more be putting their lives in harm’s way.
Perhaps Biden, Pelosi, and Kaine could learn a thing from those NATO soldiers. Or they could simply reject their pro-choice politics and go to confession. Either one would be better than dishonoring our Lord in the Eucharist by receiving Him while proudly endorsing grave sin.
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