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Cardinal Dolan on Biden communion denial: 'I wouldn't do it'

Cardinal Dolan (Getty)

While the incident was a good teaching moment, Dolan said that he himself would not deny anyone communion

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York has responded to questions about the denial of Holy Communion to former Vice President Joe Biden last Sunday.

On an October 31 interview with Fox News, Dolan said that he thought the incident was a good teaching moment about the Eucharist and the seriousness of denying Church teaching, but that he would not himself deny anyone reception of the Eucharist.

“So whether that prudential judgment was wise, I don’t want to judge him either,” Dolan said of Fr Robert Morey, who denied Holy Communion to Biden. “I wouldn’t do it.”

“Sometimes a public figure will come and talk to me about it. And I would advise them, and I think that priest (Morey) had a good point, you are publicly at odds with an issue of substance, critical substance, we’re talking about life and death and the Church,” Dolan said.

Receiving the Eucharist “implies that you’re in union with all the Church believes and stands for. If you know you’re not, well, integrity would say, ‘uh oh, I better not approach Holy Communion.’ That’s always preferable than to make a split-second decision and denying somebody,” Dolan added.

Last Sunday, Morey denied communion to 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden at Mass at St Anthony Catholic Church in Florence, South Carolina, because of the politician’s public support of abortion.

“Sadly, this past Sunday, I had to refuse Holy Communion to former Vice President Joe Biden,” Morey, who is the pastor of St Anthony’s, explained in a statement sent to CNA.

“Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church. Our actions should reflect that,” Morey added. “Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.”

In denying Biden communion, Morey was following a diocesan policy set forth in a 2004 decree signed jointly by the bishops of Atlanta, Charleston, and Charlotte. The decree states that supporting pro-abortion legislation is “gravely sinful” and that public figures who do so must be denied communion until they repent.

Joseph Zwilling, director of communications in the Archdiocese of New York, told CNA that the archdiocese does not have such a policy.

Dolan told Fox & Friends he agreed with what Morey said, though he would not personally deny a public figure the Eucharist.

“I think what he said was very to the point, I thought that was a good teaching moment,” Dolan said.

The cardinal said the issue has never come up for him personally – he has never seen a public figure in his Communion line who he knew was publicly advocating for policies that violate Church teaching.

“I’ve never had what you might call the opportunity, or I’ve never said ‘Uh oh, should I give him or her Holy Communion’, it’s never come up. Sure could,” Dolan said.

Dolan faced heavy criticism in January from Catholics who felt that he should have explicitly barred from communion New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had signed into law an expansive abortion bill.

On his radio show Jan. 29, Dolan said that sacramental disciplinary measures against the governor “would be completely counterproductive, right?”

“Especially if you have a governor who enjoys this and wants to represent himself as a kind of martyr to the cause, doing what is right. He is proud to dissent from the essentials of the faith. He’s proud with these positions.”

“For me to punish him for it? He would just say, ‘Look at the suffering this prophet has to undergo,’ the cardinal added.

Dolan said Oct. 31 that he frequently sees public figures at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and that he “admires” them when they do not approach the Eucharist out of their own awareness of their sin and separation from the Church.

“They seem to know – ‘I shouldn’t do that. That could be hypocritical at this moment,’” Dolan said.

“On the other hand, we also remember Pope Francis. We…I personally can never judge the state of a person’s soul. So it’s difficult, that’s what I’m saying. I’m not up there as a tribunal, as a judge, distributing Holy Communion, I’m there as a pastor, as a doctor of souls,” Dolan said.

“So it’s difficult to make a judgment on the state of a person’s soul. My job is to help people make, with clear Church teaching, make a decision on the state of their soul and the repercussions of that.”

When asked if priests could refusing other people communion because of their sins, Dolan said that communion is intended for sinners.

“If only saints could receive Holy Communion, we wouldn’t have anybody at Mass, including myself, alright?” Dolan said.

“So sinners are who Holy Communion is for, it’s medicine for the soul, it’s an act of mercy, so it’s intended for sinners…but sinners who want to, who are sorry and want to repent. Then anybody’s welcome, come on up,” he added.

Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law states that “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

Edward Peters, who teaches canon law at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit wrote in The Hill this week that “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.”

“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,” Peters wrote.

While not addressing Dolan’s remarks Peters addressed a point Dolan made during his interview, which Peters called the “reddest herring” in defense of Biden.

Specifically, he criticized the argument “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.”

In a memorandum to the U.S. Catholic bishops in 2004, explaining the application of Canon Law 915, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said “the minister of Holy Communion may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute Holy Communion to someone, such as in cases of a declared excommunication, a declared interdict, or an obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin.”

The case of a “Catholic politician” who is “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” would constitute “formal cooperation” in grave sin that is “manifest,” the letter added.

Biden has declined to comment on the communion incident telling reporters that it was “just my personal life.”

“I’m a practicing Catholic. I practice my faith, but I’ve never let my religious beliefs…to impose that view on other people,” Biden said this week.

While Biden served in the Senate, he largely supported the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that found a legal right to abortion, Roe v. Wade. He called his position “middle-of-the-road,” in that he supported Roe but opposed late-term abortions and federal funding of abortions.

Since then, he has supported taxpayer funding of abortions via the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and Mexico City Policy in his 2020 platform and has called for the codification of Roe v. Wade as federal law. Biden also favors reinstating taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider.