Bishops’ Attempt to Deny Communion to Biden Will Backfire Even More Spectacularly Than Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage

If only President Joe Biden didn’t carry a rosary or quote the popular Catholic hymn “On Eagle’s Wings” in his Inaugural address, it would be easy to categorize him. It would be simple to write him off as one more ‘liberal,’ ‘fallen away,’ ‘baptized but not practicing,’ ‘cafeteria Catholic,’ or just ‘one of those radicals’ (said with a snarl). 

Instead, the man also carries a holy card-sized paper in his pocket with the Covid death numbers lest one life be forgotten, visits the cemetery regularly where his family members are buried, attends Mass at least once a week, and makes the sign of the cross in public as he did when attending the memorial for a fallen police officer at the Capitol. His pick for U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican will provide another clue about his Catholicism. But President Biden certainly looks and sounds like one of the many ways Catholics look and sound, confounding some journalists and conservative bishops who fail to realize how varied we are. 

What’s left out of the public conjecturing about all of this is that today’s Roman Catholic Church isn’t John F. Kennedy’s Irish Catholicism of sixty years ago. It’s the far more variegated, differentiated community that James Joyce labeled “Here comes everybody” in Finnegan’s Wake. Moreover, its institutional form has proved itself to be scandal-ridden, elitist, secretive, by turns criminal, and, in recent decades, the reason former Catholics number as many as current Catholics in the US. 

For the bishops to pronounce who among the laity is worthy to receive communion is absurd. At most, such decisions are made pastorally and in private, on a case by case, diocese by diocese basis. But these days, with the institution mired in bankruptcies because of priests’ criminal conduct, costs and market share plunging because of inadequate ministry and inane preaching, bishops are on thin ice to let even one another receive communion.

Another analytic mistake made by uninformed journalists and would-be pundits alike is the notion that all Catholics are sinners. The dubious logic that follows is that all are equally unworthy to receive communion. Conservatives would say that some are a little more unworthy than others. They sniff piously and say we should all shiver in our shoes as we approach the altar. Please, my Irish grandmother…where do they get these notions?

Communion is not a litmus test of orthodoxy nor a prize for theological correctness. It is a simple way people get together to express gratitude amidst life’s vicissitudes and to draw strength from companionship at the table and energy for justice struggles. It’s a chance to tap into the “renewable moral energy” (hat tip: Catholic moral theologian Daniel C. Maguire) of the Jesus story. To ensnare this simple act in theo-political red tape is to profane the Eucharist itself. Sigmund would agree that sometimes a rosary is just a rosary. Sometimes a Catholic is just a Catholic. 

Mr. Biden is currently the subject of some bishops’ braying and bleating about his fitness to receive communion. From the time of his election, through the upcoming annual June meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the right flank of the Conference has been rehearsing its old songs written to deal with Geraldine Ferraro, John Kerry, and other liberal Catholics in public service. In the fall of 2020, the current president of the USCCB, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, the first Latino head and a member of Opus Dei, set up a committee to consider how to respond to a Catholic president who doesn’t interfere with the law of the land when it comes to abortion. How do you solve a problem like Joe Biden? was their hit tune. 

They reprised it on Inauguration Day with a missive that was largely lost in the hoopla and stood in sharp contrast to Pope Francis’ kind, diplomatic words of welcome to the second Catholic president of the United States. The Bishops acknowledged Mr. Biden’s personal piety, but charged that he “has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity…” They weren’t referring to building walls, supporting the death penalty, interfering with voting rights, and/or withholding healthcare from those made poor. The chorus was a tired refrain: “abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.” It was as if Catholics cared about nothing else during a global pandemic when systemic racism and economic inequality reign. The timing was rude, the content familiar, the impact minimal. 

Then came Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, KS, who chairs the Pro-Life Activities Committee of the USCCB. He put a finer point on it all arguing: 

“The president should stop defining himself as a devout Catholic, and acknowledge that his view on abortion is contrary to Catholic moral teaching… When he says he is a devout Catholic, we bishops have the responsibility to correct him. Although people have given this president power and authority, he cannot define what it is to be a Catholic and what Catholic moral teaching is. What he is doing now is usurping the role of the bishops and confusing people…”

So now we have a bishop, not of the president’s diocese, who tells a practicing Catholic that he is not devout and that the president should cease and desist from acting as a bishop in the White House. It is a novel approach, I give him credit for that, but Naumann’s fantasy is based on pure lack of information. 

It’s the bishops, and not Mr. Biden, who have made abortion their “pre-eminent priority,” leaving no doubt except in the minds of rocks about where the institutional Roman Catholic Church stands on the question. Most Catholics believe that abortion is morally permissible under certain circumstances. I daresay the Biden Administration has so many pressing issues on its agenda that abortion is not keeping them up at night one way or the other. I doubt Mr. Biden has any after-retirement aspirations to become a bishop. 

In June 2021, the bishops will vote on whether to delve more deeply into these issues. Odds are they will continue their quest. But whether they can muster a large enough majority on the anti-side of the communion wars is less clear. 

What makes the possibility more remote is that a strong voice against the reality of Catholic diversity is the same San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore James Cordileone who fell on his pectoral cross against same-sex marriage. That was a similarly ill-fated attempt to persuade Catholics that they could not in good conscience support marriage equality. As a happily married Catholic, I hope Mr. Cordileone will be just as ineffective this time. 

His recent letter, “Before I Formed You in the Womb: A Pastoral Letter on the Human Dignity of the Unborn, Holy Communion, and Catholics in Public Life” would just be creepy if it weren’t so pernicious. His description of an abortion at 24 weeks is gratuitous. In fact, over 90% of abortions are performed in the first trimester

He goes on to sketch the one and only way to be Catholic, which is to march in lockstep with conservative bishops; the one and only way to receive communion, which is to accept all teachings of the institutional Roman Catholic Church regardless; and the one and only way to call oneself a Catholic in public life, which is to oppose abortion, but not war, ecocide or racism. 

Cordileone ends his unwelcome letter with a plaintive cry to women who have had abortions to “take this deeply painful and ugly episode in your life and turn it into something beautiful for God, with God’s help.” Let the record show that unwanted pregnancy, not abortion, is the problem for many women. And reproductive justice is a beautiful thing, with the help of God, the courts, and Congress. 

It simply doesn’t get any more clueless or offensive than this letter. Nor are there many more effective ways to turn people away from the Catholic community than this kind of presumptuous, fatuous writing unless it’s the tombstones to ‘the unborn’ that some Catholic churches place on their property. 

A fool’s errand like opposing same sex marriage and dissing a manifestly moral Catholic president shows a willingness to take one for the team with the expectation of rich rewards. The most vociferous bishops on these questions tend to be the ones who’ve had their heads measured for new regalia because they’re banking on being named cardinals, especially after Pope Francis is conveniently, for them, out of the picture. With this kind of episcopal leadership, I predict that Joe Biden will be receiving communion in good conscience with his rosary in his pocket for decades to come.