The Bishops On Biden

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” St. Paul, First Letter to the Corinthians (11:23-29) c. 55

“We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.” St. Justin Martyr, First Apology c. 150

“Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” Code of Canon Law, 1983

I share the above because the Catholic bishops of the United States have been tussling recently with the question of President-elect Joe Biden’s public statements identifying himself as a “practicing Catholic” and his public positions and actions on issues such as abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, and gender ideology that are clearly opposed to Catholic teaching. Biden supports legal abortion, though he has on a number of occasions claimed that he accepts the Church’s teaching that life begins at the moment of conception. This is especially troubling, because it means that Biden recognizes that every abortion involves the willful destruction of an innocent human life, a gravely objective evil, yet he still supports the legal killing of those innocent lives. Biden also supported the Obama administration’s attempt to force the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Christian businesses and organizations to pay for birth control and abortifacients through their health insurance policies. Biden has said he intends to remove conscience exemptions from the Little Sisters and others that were put in place by the Trump administration and supported by the Supreme Court, thus opening the Sisters up for more lawsuits, apparently undaunted by their victories in the courts and determined to impose his will on this community of women religious dedicated to caring for elderly cancer patients. Biden also supports same-sex marriage, and even officiated at a same-sex wedding. Finally, Biden has promised to push gender ideology, an ideology Pope Francis has called “demonic,” so that boys and men will be allowed to use public facilities reserved for women, and boys and men will be allowed to compete in girl’s and women’s sports, jeopardizing opportunities for scholarships and sporting careers for vast numbers of women. He has even stated his support for affirming the transgender identify of children as young as eight with the force of law.

Last month, the Catholic bishops created a task force to address their concerns that a Biden presidency will create challenges to the Church in the United States, given that Biden is well known as a Catholic by the American people and has received strong support from many Catholics in the public arena and from Catholic voters, and given his opposition to many of the moral teachings of the Church. The task force will be led by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit. In announcing the creation of the task force, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that the administration of a Catholic president opposed to so much of what the Church teaches presents “a unique moment in the history of our country.” While congratulating Biden for his election and hopeful that Biden would support some measures the Church supports, such as aid to refugees and a more humane immigration policy, Gomez voiced distress over Biden’s support for abortion, for same-sex marriage, for requiring Catholic employers to pay for birth control, and also about the unequal treatment of Catholic schools by a Biden administration.

“These policies,” Gomez said, “pose a serious threat to the common good whenever any politician supports them. We have long opposed these policies strongly and will continue to do so.” Gomez went on, “When politicians who profess the Catholic faith support them there are … problems. Among other things it creates confusion among the faithful about what the church actually teaches on these questions.”

That was an understatement if ever I heard one! Many Catholics already regard the Church as merely one voice among many spouting her “opinions” on moral matters. Many Catholics already regard themselves as their own personal magisterium when it comes to moral theology, possibly considering the teachings of the Church in the process of their discerning, but feeling not obliged at all to embrace those teachings for themselves as a matter of faith in the Church as God’s instrument of revelation. Now that the most public and powerful Catholic in the country is one such Catholic, it will doubtless lend support to those who already embrace or are tempted to embrace a woefully un-Catholic theology of revelation and a woefully un-Catholic moral theology.

This has led, as you may have guessed already from my choices of quotes above, to the question of Biden’s receiving Holy Communion. The bishops have demonstrated little unity on the question. Some bishops in past years stated that Biden should not receive Holy Communion. Cardinal Raymond Burke, former prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (he remains a member of the court) has instructed Biden that he should not receive Holy Communion. Most recently, Charles Chaput, retired Archbishop of Philadelphia, has said that Biden should not receive Holy Communion because he is “not in full communion with the Catholic Church.” Chaput even rebuked his fellow bishops who have taken a different stand on the question. “When bishops publicly announce their willingness to give Communion to Mr. Biden, without clearly teaching the gravity of his facilitating the evil of abortion (and his approval of same-sex relationships), they do a serious disservice to their brother bishops and their people,” said Archbishop Chaput. Even still, when a South Carolina priest denied Biden Holy Communion last year, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, while recognizing that the priest had good points, said he would not have denied Biden Communion. “If only saints could receive Holy Communion, we wouldn’t have anybody at Mass, including myself,” Dolan said. And newly consecrated Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, DC, who will be Biden’s bishop when he takes up residence in the White House, has also said he will not deny Biden Holy Communion.

I have heard it said that to deny Biden, or any Catholic politician, Holy Communion would be to politicize the Eucharist. This is an absurd argument. First, while abortion is a political issue, it is not only a political issue. Much like other great moral matters that were once dominant in political debate, such as slavery or women’s suffrage, abortion transcends politics. It is a moral matter that touches deeply on the common good. It is a spiritual matter that touches deeply on the state of one’s soul. It is, literally, a matter of life and death that touches deeply on the intrinsic dignity of the human person and our obligation to respect such dignity. It is grave matter in all respects, and not just politically. Second, if denying a politician Holy Communion politicizes the Eucharist, then the historic practice and pastoral duty of the Church to rebuke the sinner and protect the sanctity of the sacraments would apply to all Catholics except politicians. Politicians merit an exemption from or remain outside the grasp of the Church’s pastoral responsibility simply because they are politicians? That makes no sense. If anything, Catholics who have dedicated themselves to the difficult work of public service, a service that often requires wrestling with moral dilemmas, ought to more avail themselves of the Church’s pastoral guidance and ministry, and Church ministers ought to make themselves available to them. Certainly that pastoral guidance cannot be reduced to, “Well, Joe, you’re a politician, so all I can offer is – do what you think is right!”

Sadly, Cardinal Dolan’s statement quoted above about only saints receiving Holy Communion misses the point entirely. Perfect sanctity is not required for reception of Holy Communion and never has been. But, there is a big difference between someone who tries and too often fails in his or her desire to live the gospel faithfully and one who publicly and obstinately “persists in manifest grave sin.” There is also a big difference in one who struggles to embrace the fullness of Catholic faith and one who quite clearly has given up that struggle and surrendered to moral heresy. Indeed, if Joe Biden rejects even central moral teachings of the faith, such as the intrinsic dignity of human life, the necessary social nature of human life (that supplies the foundation for our responsibility to protect the innocent), and the nature of sacramental marriage, then is it not fair to say that he rejects the Church as the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ, a teaching that is a foundational doctrine of Catholicism? If Biden rejects the Church has instrument of God’s revelation in Christ, on what basis does he make his claim to be a believing, practicing Catholic?

No one can judge the state of Joe Biden’s soul before God. That is for God alone. But, that does not relieve the bishops and those others in the Church responsible for teaching and guiding others in the faith (and, as a Catholic husband and father, I am one of those) from making judgments on Biden’s public acts and positions in light of the clear and consistent teachings of the Church. Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville tweeted his bewilderment at Biden’s claim to be a faithful Catholic given his rejection of so much of Catholic teaching and his support for abortion. “Don’t understand how Mr. Biden can claim to be a good and faithful Catholic as he denies so much of Church teaching especially on the absolute child abuse and human rights violations of the most innocent, the not yet born,” Bishop Stika wrote.

For my part, Biden seems to me more a cultural Catholic than a man of Catholic faith. He says he has taken great solace in the practice of his Catholicism. I don’t doubt that in the least. The rituals of faith, of prayer, of public liturgy offer great solace and inspiration to those attracted to them. But, I recall the scene from the third Godfather movie where a Catholic bishop picks up a rock from the waters of a fountain. He turns to Michael Corleone and says something to the effect that, “This rock has been sitting in the waters of this fountain for years and, while the outside is wet, when you break it open, you see that the inside remains stone dry.” The bishop was making a point about those who live in the Church but have not internalized the faith.

Based on his public acts and positions, it seems that Biden’s outside is saturated with his Catholicism. But, he has never internalized the faith of the Church. It is incumbent upon the bishops to engage Joe Biden according to their responsibilities as pastors of the Church, and of all his fellow Catholics to pray for our brother in Christ, that his heart may be converted to a deep, passionate love for Christ and His revelation given to us through His Church.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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