Abortion and the Eucharist

Joe Biden’s apparent election brings to the fore the question of pro-abortion Catholic politicians being denied the Eucharist. Washington D.C.’s Archbishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, swiftly renounced any intent to do so, despite the Catholic Biden’s embrace of extreme pro-abortion policies.     

I have always been reticent about pressuring bishops to take this action, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. Nevertheless, there is both precedent and Church teaching that affirm doing so.

In 1962, New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel excommunicated powerful local official Leander Perez and two others for their persistent promotion of racial segregation. Some today oppose “politicizing” the Eucharist by withholding it from pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Would they likewise have accused Archbishop Rummel of politicizing the sacrament by withholding it from those promoting racism?

And don’t some politicians themselves politicize the Eucharist, publicly receiving Communion in order to portray themselves as faithful Catholics while supporting policies the Church holds to be “intrinsically evil?” Some months ago, Cardinal Gregory angrily denounced what he saw as President Trump’s politicizing of the Saint John Paul II Shrine in Washington. Yet he musters only a vague reference to “some areas where we won’t agree” when discussing (or avoiding discussing) Biden’s pro-abortion extremism.

Definitive teaching on this matter came in a 2004 memo to the U.S. Bishops from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

“When a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws),” wrote the future Pope Benedict XVI, he should be instructed that “he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin,” and be warned “that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”

If the person continues to promote these attacks on innocent human life, and “with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it,” Cardinal Ratzinger concluded.

Pretty straightforward.

So why am I reticent about urging such action on the bishops?

Well first, I do not share the belief that such action would be a “magic bullet” for the pro-life cause, prompting pro-abortion Catholic pols to suddenly reverse themselves and embrace legal protection for the unborn.

Maybe that would have happened 50 years ago, although I am dubious even about that. But today, with abortion enshrined in our culture; with the Democratic Party having made it a litmus test for political advancement; with various “progressive” Catholics, lay, clergy and episcopal, giving them cover; and with the bishops’ influence at a low ebb due to the abuse scandal and various other factors—I am convinced such action will change nothing with regard to pro-abortion Catholic candidates and officeholders.

Joe Biden well illustrates this. In the past, he tempered his support for legal abortion by embracing certain restrictions—opposing late term abortion; supporting the Hyde Amendment that restricted taxpayer funding for abortion; and even, at one point, saying Roe v. Wade had gone too far.

This year, seeking the nomination of a party that has moved to the furthest possible pro-abortion fringe, he abandoned all moderation, embracing late term abortion, supporting repeal of the Hyde Amendment, and promising to codify Roe v. Wade. And when a priest in South Carolina did deny Biden Communion, it did not deter him from these positions.   

Instead, pro-abortion Catholic politicians wear denial of Communion as a political badge of courage, depicting themselves as martyrs being “persecuted” by the bishops—while the truly courageous political martyrs are those like Illinois Congressman Dan Lipinski, who lost his seat in a Democratic primary rather than betray his pro-life principles.

More fundamentally, I am against “lobbying” the bishops on this matter because that is not our province as Catholic laity—and because, being a sinner myself, I am not comfortable presuming to judge the worthiness of others to receive the sacred body and blood of Christ.

As I understand it, there are basically two reasons for a bishop to withhold the sacraments.

The first is therapeutic—to persuade the person to end his or her “obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin”—in this case formal cooperation with the “intrinsic evil” of abortion—and thereby to heal and protect their immortal soul. The bishop must weigh carefully whether there is a reasonable expectation that withholding the sacraments will have that effect—or whether, as seems often the case with our pro-abortion Catholic politicians, it will more likely push them into further obstinacy and thereby deeper sin.

The second reason for a bishop to take such action is to avoid giving scandal—defined by the Church as engaging in behavior that has the potential to lead others into serious sin.

Here, I think, an arguable case can be made. Aspiring Catholic politicians, seeing others suffer no consequences for promoting abortion in defiance of Church teaching, may be tempted to follow suit if it is to their political advantage.

Let me be clear. Whenever a bishop denies the Eucharist to a pro-abortion Catholic public official—whether as a therapeutic corrective to protect the person’s soul, or to avoid giving scandal that could lead others into the same serious sin—that bishop will have my unqualified support.

But I will not lobby the bishops to take such action—not only because I do not think it will be helpful to our pro-life cause, but primarily because that is not my role as a Catholic lay person.

My responsibility as a Catholic citizen is to promote laws and public policies that uphold the sanctity of life —and to elect public officials who will enact such laws and policies.

Judging whether to deny the sacraments to Catholic officeholders who fail to do so is the province of the bishops—for which they are answerable to God, not to me. And I am eternally thankful that that awesome responsibility is on their shoulders, not on mine. 

Published by Rick Hinshaw

I have spent the last three decades in primarily Catholic communications work: as a reporter, news editor, columnist, and for eight years editor of The Long Island Catholic; several years as co-host and co-producer of The Catholic Forum program on the diocesan Telecare channel; two stints as Director of Communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; and a year as Associate Director for Communications at the New York State Catholic Conference. I also served for three years as Public Information Officer for the late Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon, a staunchly Catholic and active pro-life leader. Over that more than 30-year career, I have gained an ever deeper understanding of and appreciation for the moral and social teachings of our Church. In my various roles I have lent my voice to articulating those teachings and their applicability to the critical issues of our time. That is what I intend to do with this blog. Moreover, at a time when our political and social disagreements seem to have degenerated into constant vitriol, vilification, verbal abuse and intolerance of those who hold differing opinions, I hope that this blog can contribute, in some small way, to a restoration of respectful debate and discussion, where we can defend our beliefs forcefully without demonizing any who disagree with us. As a Catholic commentator, that is what I have always striven to do--remembering that even as we are called to stand firmly in defense of our Church, her teachings, and our right to be heard in the public square, we are also called always to be the face of Christ to the world--most especially to those with whom we disagree.

5 thoughts on “Abortion and the Eucharist

  1. More of the same drip drip drip that leads us away from our Catholic heritage. We belong to a church. The church has rules. Follow them or leave. The Bible says that he who receives unworthily receives to his own detriment. That is plain enough.

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  2. Rick, I appreciate your reticence to nudge the Bishops on whether or not to deny the Eucharist to Catholic politicians. That said I think the USCCB is fair game when it comes to criticizing them for actions like their congratulations message to Biden and Harris. I included the following in an appeal to the individual that I believe is your successor at DRVC:

    “Following is a quote lifted from an American Life League publication.

    On November 7, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a press release stating in part: “We recognize that Joseph R. Biden, Jr., has received enough votes to be elected the 46th president of the United States. We congratulate Mr. Biden and acknowledge that he joins the late President John F. Kennedy as the second United States president to profess the Catholic faith. We also congratulate Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, who becomes the first woman ever elected as vice president. “

    “We were dumbfounded because it is not clear that the Biden/Harris team has actually won. And frankly, pro-abort politicians like these two should be reprimanded by the USCCB, not congratulated! The USCCB’s rush to curry favor with pro-aborts has not only saddened us, but has left us disturbed.”

    I, for one, find the USCCB action pathetic. I suggest and implore, our shepherd, Bishop Barres, to make a public statement denouncing that press release. Without such a pronouncement, it is assumed that he concurs with that action. He is not obliged to endorse every action the USCCB takes. Like other clerics, he might even be conscience bound to assert any disagreement.

    The inference that the former Vice President would be “.. the second United States president to profess the Catholic faith.” is not only inconsequential but erroneous. How can such an erudite assemblage ignore his avowed support of abortion, even through the ninth month and his intent to restore federal funding to Planned Parenthood? Would they still consider him as professing Catholicism even if he advocated acceptance of slavery, indentured servitude and other abhorrent practices?

    Don’t they find it incongruous that they: “.. congratulate Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, who becomes the first woman ever elected as vice president.” while church hierarchy is so vocally opposed to many potential female roles within our religion?

    Are our leaders so obtuse that they cannot see they are discouraging the embracing of Catholicism. Such overt acts and endorsements as those referenced seem like pandering and hypocrisy. The unsolicited accolades and the lack of equivalent criticisms make our leaders appear complicit and comparable to Neville Chamberlain prior to Britain’s involvement in WW II.”

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    1. Thanks John, you are of course correct that when the bishops comment on temporal matters, their prudential judgements in the areas of politics and government are fair game for disagreement. I would only draw the line at those who challenge their right to speak on such matters, or who engage in anti-Catholic attacks rather than reasoned disagreement with their views. But their views themselves on issues of politics and public policy are certainly subject to reasoned disagreement among faithful Catholics who in good faith reach different prudential judgements.

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    1. Thanks Walter, yes, another reader brought this to my attention as well. As he always does, Archbishop Chaput provides great clarity on this matter.

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