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.
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.