Catholic priest was correct to deny communion to Joe Biden — here’s why

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Last week a Catholic pastor ruled on a request by a Catholic layman for a Catholic sacrament. The priest’s decision, turning upon considerations purely internal to the Church, should have been about as newsworthy as his announcement of the Rosary Society bake sale, but for two things.

First, the layman making the request was presidential hopeful Joseph Biden, heir of a political alliance forged 50 years ago between bishops and Democrats, albeit an alliance battered by the Democrats’ decades-long drift to the left and weakened in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Still, if any Democrat plausibly chasing the nomination for president might be taken as a Catholic, it is Joe Biden.

Second, and more significantly, the pastor’s ruling on Biden’s request for the sacrament, specifically a request for holy communion, was negative. A priest withheld from a layman the most tangible sign of one’s communion with the church. Those factors drove the story national and make it worthy of a closer look. 

Fundamental here is the Catholic belief that the eucharist is – not represents, but is – the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. Catholics regard the eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life,” to quote the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” and they see it as “powerful medicine for the weak,” to quote Pope Francis. At the same time, Catholics recall St. Paul’s warning that unworthy reception of holy communion is a grievous offense smacking of sacrilege and scandal. In short, Catholics hold that receiving holy communion can be wonderfully right or terribly wrong but cannot be a matter of indifference.

These principles are summarized in Canons 915-916 of the “Code of Canon Law.” If read purely as disciplinary norms, however, these canons can make sacramental regulation come across as a legalistic exercise rather than as a marker of sound religious observance. Compounding a de-contextualized reading of sacramental law, moreover, are the growing ignorance of church teaching on holy communion among Catholic faithful, a secular media happy to exploit internal conflicts in the church and not a few Catholic pundits eager to refashion church teaching and practice in their own image.

But, however the decision to withhold holy communion from Biden made headlines, it was unquestionably the pastor’s decision to make and he made it, in my view, correctly.

Canon 916 requires a believer not to approach for holy communion with a guilty conscience (a norm that, when observed correctly, prevents most problems in this area). Canon 915 positively requires ministers of holy communion, especially pastors, to withhold the sacrament from Catholics “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.” Public support for abortion, its preservation in law, and/or its public funding, are sinful acts under Catholic moral analysis. Thus, even if Biden is not the most egregious offender among Catholic politicians regarding abortion (a case that can be made), such a defense favors him only in comparison with fanatics such as Nancy Pelosi.

While there are relatively few examples of pastors withholding holy communion from Catholic politicians who support abortion, the refusal that Biden experienced should not have come as a surprise. He had been warned about approaching for holy communion in 2008 by Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, who told Biden that, because of his support for abortion, he would be refused holy communion if he approached that prelate, and by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput (then of Denver, now of Philadelphia), who implied likewise.

Furthermore, lest the enormity of abortion under Catholic moral analysis result in the impression that only a politician’s support for abortion falls within canon law’s notion of actionable “grave sin,” note that many things can qualify as “grave sin” and that, in Biden’s case, other misdeeds could figure in a decision to withhold the sacrament. For example, in 2016 Biden capped many years of public support for same-sex marriage by officiating at such a ceremony between White House staffers while vice president, an act perceived as a deliberate thumb in the eye of the church for teaching that marriage can exist only between a man and a woman. Biden thus compounded his open conflicts with church teachings.

Two groups will chastise the pastor: The secular Left that objects to any suggestion that its own should be liable to faith-based correction, and activist Catholics interested in breaking down barriers to sacramental sharing based on one’s acceptance, or rejection, of church teaching. However one might respond to the first group, the second warrants a word here. 

By far the reddest herring employed by Catholics against the enforcement of objective criteria for sacraments is that recited by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, late of Washington, which implies that withholding holy communion requires a minister to peer into the soul of a would-be recipient and judge it unworthy. Nonsense. To confuse the private examination of one’s conscience as envisioned by Canon 916 with the recognition that some public acts warrant public consequences under Canon 915 is to show either ignorance of or indifference to well-established Catholic pastoral and sacramental practice. 

Whether the Biden episode is a pastoral one-off or portends a turn in church practice is impossible to say. What one can say is that the results achieved by largely ignoring Canon 915 have thus far been meager.

Edward Peters teaches canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

Tags Canon 915 Catholics Eucharistic discipline Joe Biden Joe Biden Mortal sin Nancy Pelosi Pope Francis Roman Catholic Church Sacraments

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