Senator Kyrsten Sinema could be the 50th vote for – or against – Biden’s ambitious legislation. So what does she want?
Bishops’ decision to pressure Biden not to take Communion reflects power struggle in the divided Catholic Church
The progressive values of President Joe Biden dovetail with the conservatism of some Catholic bishops. AP Photo / Evan Vucci President Joe Biden is the most prominent and powerful Catholic layman in American life today – but he also has political views that diverge from those of many Catholic bishops. And that poses problems. The dilemma looks like this. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that abortion is the suppression of human life, no different from murder, and a sin so grave that it results in automatic excommunication. Yet prominent Roman Catholics in public life – including Democrats such as Biden and House of Commons Speaker Nancy Pelosi – support the right to abortion. This has led some Catholic bishops to fear that a contradictory image of the Catholic faith will be presented to the public. In response, the American bishops are said to be preparing a pastoral statement to be released in June that would tell Catholics when they should and should not receive Communion. The effect of this document would be to exclude Catholics like Biden and Pelosi from full participation in the church. Communion, also known as the Eucharist, is the central act of Roman Catholic worship in which Catholics receive bread and wine which they believe becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The law of the Church in particular excludes from communion those who are guilty of what is called “manifest grave sin”. This means that no one who has committed a serious sin in a way that is publicly visible should not receive Communion. The bishops argue that being pro-choice, Democrats like Joe Biden have made themselves unfit to take Communion. As a scholar who studies Catholicism in politics, I contend that the proposed pastoral statement reflects existing divisions within the Catholic Church that were accentuated by Biden’s election as President. In addition, it will only serve to dig the ditch. Greater authority? Joe Biden is a dedicated Catholic, attending Mass weekly and wearing rosary beads wherever he goes. He spoke repeatedly of the importance of his faith to him. But his political stance on abortion pots with more conservative elements in the Catholic Church. In October 2019, a priest refused to give Communion to the then presidential candidate when he showed up at St. Anthony’s Church in Florence, South Carolina. The priest, who had never met Biden before, told reporters: “Any public figure who advocates abortion is outside the teaching of the church.” The picture is not as clear as this priest suggests, and the history of the Catholic Church in its dealings with Catholic officials is more inconsistent. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, for example, presided over a brutal regime of atrocities and torture known around the world, but received a Catholic burial in 1975 presided over by the Archbishop of Toledo. More relevant to the Biden affair, Pope John Paul II gave Communion in 2001 to the mayor of Rome, Franceso Rutelli, who had campaigned to liberalize abortion laws. Likewise, Pope Benedict XVI gave Communion to Rudolph Giuliani, Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry – all of whom support the right to abortion. The reason the issue has arisen now in the United States seems to be more the concerns of the bishops about their diminishing influence. Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities and one of the key figures supporting a pastoral statement on fellowship, told The Associated Press: “Let it be intentional or not, [Biden is] trying to usurp our authority. “He doesn’t have the power to teach what it means to be Catholic,” Naumann continued; “It is our responsibility as bishops.” Naumann may have reason to be concerned. A 2019 poll found that 63% of American Catholics have lost faith in Catholic bishops due to their handling of the still ongoing sexual abuse crisis. For many Catholics, Biden’s presentation of the Catholic faith as aligning with racial justice, economic justice, climate justice and healthcare justice offers a stark contrast to the bishops mired in scandal and unhappy with the trends such as same-sex marriage in American culture. Archbishop of Denver Samuel J. Aquila wrote in mid-April about the need to establish “Eucharistic consistency” through a pastoral statement that would indicate when someone like Biden should not show up for Communion. It seems, for many bishops like Aquila, this is the solution to their dilemma over Biden. But not all bishops agree. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago wrote a private letter to Aquila expressing his reservations. The letter was leaked after it was received, making the divisions among the bishops more visible. Communion “not a prize” The proposed document on “Eucharistic Coherence” is expected to be presented to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in June – a decision that will likely highlight the split within the Church even further. But even if the pastoral statement is approved, the conference has no authority to apply it to any particular bishop. The result would be an inconsistent patchwork for each bishop to decide. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington has previously indicated that he will not prevent Biden from receiving Communion. Only the Vatican has the right to impose the pastoral declaration on every bishop – but this almost certainly will not happen. Pope Francis has already made it clear that the Eucharist “is not a price for the perfect, but powerful medicine and food for the weak”. [Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture in a weekly newsletter. Sign up for This Week in Religion.] As such, the pastoral statement could only serve to highlight the differences between many American bishops and the Pope. It could also backfire by trying to roll back the authority of the American bishops. A pre-election debate over the sincerity of Biden’s Catholicism has sowed discord among worshipers. Biden, through baptism and participation in the other sacraments, is Catholic. there is no doubt. Because they reflect intense divisions in the church, these efforts to disqualify the President from the sacraments and the church are, I believe, a threat to the authority of the church today. Nothing that promotes or deepens these divisions will help the bishops or the Catholics they lead. The Catholic Theological Union is a member of the Association of Theological Schools. ATS is a financial partner of The Conversation US. This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Steven P. Millies, Catholic Theological Union. Read more: 60 Years After JFK, Biden As Second Catholic President Offers Refreshment In Church Political Role Why Joe Biden Was Denied Communion In Church Steven P. Millies Was A Member Of The Catholic Advisory Board of the 2020 Biden-Harris campaign.