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The return of the Communion wars

Joe Biden (Getty)

A presidential candidate was surprised to be denied Communion. But the issue is simpler than it might look

Joe Biden, a frontrunner for the  Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, is a lifelong Catholic who has drifted leftward since entering the Obama White House in 2008. The tension between his public views and private faith came to a head last month when a priest in South Carolina denied him Holy Communion while he was on a campaign visit to the state. 

The Morning News in the city of Florence obtained confirmation from Fr Anthony Morey on October 28, the day after Sunday Mass, that the priest “had denied the presidential candidate Holy Communion because of his stance on abortion”. 

Fr Morey told the Morning News that “Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church. Our actions should reflect that. Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself  or herself outside of Church teaching.”  He added that he would “keep Mr Biden  in my prayers”. 

The Biden campaign initially refused to confirm the incident or even that the candidate had attended Mass there. 

But Biden discussed the incident with PBS. “That’s a private matter,” he said. “I’m not going to talk about that, but that’s the only time it’s ever happened, and we didn’t talk about it. He [Fr Morey] went to the press about it. And it’s not a position I’ve found anywhere else, including from the Holy Father, who gives me Communion.” 

The Diocese of Wilmington put out a  statement saying that Biden’s local bishop, the Most Rev W Francis Malooly, “has consistently refrained from politicising  the Eucharist, and will continue to do so.  

His preference, as with most bishops, is to interact with politicians individually who disagree with significant Church teachings.” 

While other senior churchmen remained silent, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York gave Fr Morey some qualified sympathy.  

“I think that priest had a good point,” he told Fox & Friends. “You are publicly at odds with an issue of substance – critical substance. We’re talking about life and  death in the Church. You personally,  out of integrity, should not approach Holy Communion – because that implies that you’re in union with all the Church beliefs.” But the cardinal said that personally he would not refuse Biden Communion. 

As a senator, Biden attempted to chart a middle course, supporting Roe v Wade but opposing late-term abortion and backing the Hyde Amendment, which restricts the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. He is the only Catholic running in the Democratic primary and is still seen as a centrist, though the composition of the primary electorate  has forced him to tack left. He reversed his position on the Hyde Amendment in June, meaning that he now supports federal funding for abortion. 

Biden’s platform contains a number of other troubling proposals. He would reverse the Mexico City Policy, which prevents taxpayer-funded NGOs operating abroad from performing abortions. He also wants to restore federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s biggest abortion provider, and promises to set the Justice Department on states that have limited abortion. 

He is also a supporter of gay and transgender rights, and officiated at a same-sex wedding in 2016. 

Bishops began to criticise Biden’s record even before he began tacking left in the Obama administration. The Most Rev Joseph Martino, the bishop of Biden’s hometown of Scranton, said in 2008 that Biden should not approach to receive Holy Communion in his diocese while he was campaigning in Pennsylvania. (Bishop Martino resigned a year later, aged just 63 – 12 years before the usual retirement age for bishops.) 

Faithful America, a group closely connected to the Democratic Party and an offshoot of the National Council of Churches, condemned Fr Morey’s treatment of Biden. “Holy Communion is not a tool for punishing political opponents,” a petition from the group said. “We have seen this despicable behaviour before, used by right-wing clergy to attack John Kerry and Tim Kaine. This election, with the stakes so  high, we need to nip the hijacking of faith  in the bud.” 

The basis for denying Communion to politicians who support abortion is Canon 915, which says that those “obstinately  persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion”. (A similar, though widely ignored principle is in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.) 

The question is whether public support for abortion, either by taking votes to expand it or advocating for the same, is gravely sinful, and whether a politician like Biden is obstinate in his support. At least two prominent Catholics, writing in mainstream publications in the last week, have argued that it is.  

In a column for USA Today, Fr Thomas Petri, dean of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, wrote: “The reason the Church might bar such persons from Holy Communion is precisely because their sin is not only grave but it’s also public (ie ‘manifest’) and they’re obstinate in holding it. Such a person is no longer living in communion with the Church, so allowing this person to receive Holy Communion would also be a lie.” 

Canon lawyer Edward Peters wrote in  The Hill that “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,” he said. “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.” 

Meanwhile, the Catholic News Agency reported that Fr Morey was following a diocesan policy of denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians. A joint 2004 decree by the Archbishop of Atlanta and the bishops of Charleston and Charlotte said that “Catholic public officials who consistently support abortion on demand are cooperating with evil in a public manner. By supporting pro-abortion legislation they participate in manifest grave sin, a condition which excludes them from admission to Holy Communion as long as they persist in the pro-abortion stance.”  

In 2004, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops left the decision over admitting pro-abortion politicians to Communion to individual bishops. However, just before the meeting where that decision was made, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent a letter saying Communion should be denied. Rather than reading the letter out in full, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington gutted it, saying that Cardinal Ratzinger “clearly leaves to us … whether to pursue this path”.  

Wilton Gregory, the then Bishop of Belleville, Illinois, and now Archbishop of Washington, was also sent the letter but took a notably more ambiguous stance, saying at the time that “In the nature of the Church, the imposition of sanctions is always the final response, not the first response, nor the second, nor maybe even the 10th.” 

While Biden insisted that Pope Francis  had given him Communion, we should not assume that the Pope disagrees with Fr Morey. Before his election to the papacy, Francis was the architect of the Aparecida Document, a blueprint for the new evangelisation in Latin America. The text said: “We must adhere to ‘Eucharistic coherence’, that is, be conscious that they cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments and health professionals.” 

This has widely been cited as an endorsement by Pope Francis of denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians.   

Jordan Bloom is deputy editor of  the Daily Caller