The question roiling the Catholic Church: Who's a good Catholic?

The question roiling the Catholic Church: Who's a good Catholic?
© Associated Press

On Oct. 29, President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE held a 75-minute meeting with Pope FrancisPope Francis Pope calls on young people to protect environment The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Gosar censured as GOP drama heightens Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Native solar startups see business as activism MORE. The two heads of state discussed the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to poor countries, the plight of refugees and the climate crisis. But their encounter was also uniquely pastoral. The pope blessed Biden’s rosary beads and assured the second Catholic U.S. president that he is “a good Catholic.” This resonated with the devout Biden, who keeps a picture of Pope Francis prominently displayed in the Oval Office and regularly attends Catholic mass. 

But ever since Joe Biden’s election, the U.S. Catholic bishops have been anything but reassuring as to Biden’s state of grace. On Inauguration Day, Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), issued a scathing indictment: “Our new president has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”

Immediately, a divisive debate began as to whether Biden should present himself for Holy Communion. At the USCCB meeting in June, several bishops proposed that Biden, along with other pro-choice Catholic politicians, be turned away at the altar.


Pope Francis has made his views crystal clear. Returning from a trip to Slovenia in September, the Pope emphatically said, “I have not denied Communion to anyone!” At their October meeting, the pope told Biden that he should keep receiving Communion, prompting EWTN commentator Raymond Arroyo to tweet that the pope’s statement “goes against his own U.S. bishops on this (and Canon law).” Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin was especially caustic: “Where are the John the Baptists who will confront the Herods of our day?” 

As the bishops gather this month to once more address the subject, a proposed draft document does not mention either Biden or abortion. Instead, it calls upon Catholics to understand that Holy Communion is the spiritual and physical connection to Jesus Christ. Transubstantiation – i.e., the conversion of bread and wine during mass into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ – is a church tenet that few Catholics either understand or believe. In a 2019 Pew Research poll, 69 percent of Catholics said the bread and wine on the altar are “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ;” only 31 percent believed they are the actual body and blood of Jesus. This should be a teaching moment.

But the ongoing emphasis of some bishops to deny pro-choice Catholic politicians Holy Communion raises a fundamental question: Who is a good Catholic? Is a Catholic who supported Biden in 2020 (including this columnist) a good Catholic? Is a Catholic supporter of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE a good Catholic? Is a married gay Catholic school teacher a good Catholic?

Pope Francis has implicitly answered these questions. In 2013, responding to a question about homosexuals, the Pope said, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Most Catholics agree. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center poll, 67 percent of U.S. Catholics believe that those who disagree with church teaching on abortion should receive Communion; as for homosexuality, a sexual orientation the church has described as “objectively disordered,” the number favoring receiving Communion for those who disagree with church teaching rises to 78 percent; regarding those opposed to the church’s stance on the death penalty, it’s 79 percent; and for those who differ with the church on immigration, it’s 87 percent

The question, “Who is a good Catholic?” has roiled the church since its inception. Human beings are creatures of comfort, and we like surrounding ourselves with like-minded people. Today some bishops seek a more homogenous, culturally conservative, and smaller church composed of “good Catholics.” Conservative Catholic scholar George Weigel longs for an “All-In Catholicism” whose uniform nature creates the exclusivity some bishops so desire.

But the Catholic Church was never designed to turn its followers into creatures of comfort. The New Testament reports that when Jesus said anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood “remains in me and I in him,” many of his followers grumbled and drifted away, leaving Jesus to ask his remaining apostles, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Peter answered: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” 

Catholics should be uncomfortable with politicians who advocate for abortion rights, or with leaders who think separating immigrant children from their parents is good public policy or with governors who support the death penalty. Indeed, it is when the Catholic Church makes people uncomfortable – and gets them to think – instead of reflexively reacting from their partisan political inclinations that the church is fully engaging the hearts and minds of the faithful.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend once wrote that instead of engaging the faithful the Catholic Church “builds walls to keep the threatening, encroaching world out, rather than moving us in ever-widening ways into the world that so desperately needs our help.” By becoming creatures of comfort in the culture wars, the bishops have failed to engage the faithful on matters of social justice. Archbishop José Gomez describes the social justice movements that accelerated after the murder of George Floyd as “pseudo-religions, and even replacements and rivals to traditional Christian beliefs.” Fr. Bryan Massingale, a leading U.S. Catholic theologian at Fordham University, responded: “[M]ost Black Catholics I know advocate Black Lives Matter precisely because of our belief in the universal human dignity of all people as images of God.”

Rather than seeking the comfort of like-minded Catholics, the church should welcome a dialogue on all theological and social justice issues. The decisions Catholic voters make should be hard, not easy. A comfortable Catholicism appeals to many, but an engaged Catholicism should prick the conscience. Instead of asking who’s a good Catholic, the question ought to be, “How can I be a better Catholic?”

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled “What Happened to the Republican Party?” In 2020, he served as a co-chair of Catholics for Biden.