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It had to happen. And now it has happened. Over the years American Catholics in public life, including politicians, have expressed personal views contrary to Church teaching. The “Cuomo doctrine” – after former New York Governor Mario Cuomo (the father of the current Governor) – was adopted by many Catholic politicians: “I’m personally opposed to abortion but I can’t force my religious beliefs on others.”

In a few rare cases they were excommunicated or denied Holy Communion. Most of the time, no action was taken.

Now the Catholic in public life is none other than the President of the United States.

Joe Biden is only the second Catholic ever to become President. He attends Mass regularly; he carries rosary beads; he made the sign of the cross after a public ceremony at the White House honouring the 500,000 Americans who had died from Covid-19; and behind his desk in the Oval Office he has a photo of Pope Francis.

During his election campaign last year he released a video in which he said: “Personally for me, faith, it’s all about hope and purpose and strength, and for me, my religion is just an enormous sense of solace. I go to Mass and I say the rosary. I find it to be incredibly comforting.”

Yet he has made public statements contrary to fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church. Two days after his inauguration he issued a statement promising legislation to codify Roe v Wade. Within a week he issued an executive order to fund abortions in the US and overseas. The President’s involvement in abortion is current, not historic, and practical, not theoretical.

Should he, then, be allowed to receive Holy Communion? After all, Holy Communion, which Catholics believe to be truly the Body and Blood of Christ, has always been the ultimate symbol of unity of mind and heart amongst Christians. That’s why the Catholic Church does not allow receiving Holy Communion in another denomination, with the exception of the Orthodox Churches in some circumstances. It would be a sign that one accepts all the doctrines and disciplines of that community.

The fact is, though, that President Biden has been receiving Communion – at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, a few kilometres from the White House, with the support of the Jesuit parish priest, Fr Kevin Gillespie. Fr Gillespie cross-checked this with the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, who agreed that the President was welcome to receive Communion.

At the same time, the President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop José Gomez, of Los Angeles, issued a public statement to President Biden on the day of his inauguration expressing the support of the bishops for his presidency but cautioning him about certain of his positions.

In particular, Gomez highlighted the unique moral seriousness of life issues, emphasising that abortion is “not only a private matter [but] raises troubling and fundamental questions of fraternity, solidarity, and inclusion in the human community.”

Other American bishops opposed this statement. Cardinal Blase Cupich, of Chicago, tweeted that it was “ill-considered” and was an example of “internal institutional failures”.

So US Catholics – even those who are strongly pro-life — are very divided on the propriety of condemning a Catholic politician for supporting abortion.

What is the argument for taking a stern line?

There are clear guidelines, especially the Code of Canon Law, which is basically like a constitution for the world-wide Church, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is the official statement of what Catholics are called upon to believe and practise.

Canon 915 of the Code states: “Those … who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” Can it be said that a person who expresses public support for abortion rights or same-sex marriage obstinately persists in manifest grave sin? Undoubtedly. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion… Direct abortion … is gravely contrary to the moral law” (CCC 2271). 

To contradict publicly a teaching as clear and fundamental as this is clearly a grave sin. If the person is aware that they are contradicting Church teaching on so grave a matter, they cannot be admitted to Holy Communion. After all, the reception of Communion implies that a person is truly in communion with the Church on all matters, including Church teaching.

What is more, to deny a fundamental teaching like that on abortion is tantamount to heresy, which is defined in the Catechism as “the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith” (CCC 2089; Can. 751).

If someone has been warned that what they are advocating is contrary to Church teaching and they obstinately persist in that belief, they are guilty of heresy. The penalty is severe – a person who persists in heresy is automatically excommunicated by the law itself (cf. Can. 1364).

Since it is often not clear exactly who is guilty of heresy and is therefore excommunicated, the local bishop, after a proper investigation, may choose to declare publicly that the person is excommunicated.

Excommunication has happened in the United States. In 1962 New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummell excommunicated three people who opposed his plans to desegregate Catholic schools.

Whether the bishop considers this to be the best way to proceed, however, is another matter. It’s a matter which calls for great prudence.

One approach the priest or bishop may take, after speaking personally with the politician and warning him of the scandal he is causing, is to ask the person not to present himself for Communion in any Masses in the parish or diocese. This is not the same as a formal excommunication, which prevents the person from receiving any sacrament in the Church until such time as the person repents and has been absolved of the excommunication. Nor does it mean that the person cannot attend Mass. Like many other people, he can simply stay in his pew at the time of Communion. Many people do that anyway, for a range of reasons.

This approach was taken, for example, in 2008 by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City with Kathleen Sebelius, the Governor of Kansas, who had vetoed a bill passed by both houses of the state legislature greatly restricting access to abortion. After speaking personally several times with Governor Sebelius about her action, the Archbishop asked Sebelius not to present herself for Holy Communion until such time as she amended her life and publicly repudiated her previous actions.

There are reasonable arguments for taking a softer line. 

For one, there is a danger that a one-eyed focus on the most important of pro-life issues allows American Catholics to ignore others. Abortion is clearly contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, but this is also true of the death penalty. Admittedly, they do not have the same moral weight. The prohibition of abortion is a moral absolute, but in the past capital punishment was permitted as a last resort to protect society.

However, in last year’s encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis said unequivocally that “Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.”

“Inadmissible” is a severe and categorical word. Should a Catholic politician who supports the death penalty be refused Holy Communion?

This is not a theoretical concern. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts are all Republicans and all Catholics who ignored pleas from the bishops of their states and authorised executions of convicted murderers. They are strong public supporters of the death penalty. However, no one expects them to be excommunicated for respecting the perspective of Pope Francis, to use the words of Governor Ricketts  – but ignoring it.

Another consideration is this. It’s important to avoid politicising the Eucharist and making it just another battleground in America’s culture wars. It would be cynical, not to say Machiavellian, for Republicans to exploit Catholic theology to undermine Catholic Democrats. And it could work the other way around. What if liberal-minded bishops were to deny Communion to politicians who oppose climate change mitigation or increased immigration? They could quote documents from Pope Francis to support their stand.

Complications like this may explain why European bishops have, by and large, refrained from issuing public rebukes to pro-abortion politicians.

But there can be no doubt that abortion is serious moral evil. The Second Vatican Council – an intellectual touchstone for all Catholics – described it as “an unspeakable crime”. If a politician boasts of his Catholic credentials and yet supports it, openly, vehemently, and consistently, something should be done. In many cases a quiet personal word may be the best pastoral approach to this conundrum. The local bishop could warn that person – personally, not on Twitter or in a press release — that he is endangering his eternal salvation by publicly supporting an immoral law. Political success is not worth going to hell. It’s mighty uncomfortable down there.

Whether or not the authorities in Washington have chosen to do this is unknown. Given the circumstances, it is unlikely. Meanwhile, many Catholics will remain scandalised that a president who has expressed views contrary to Church teaching on such important issues continues to be admitted to Communion.

Fr John Flader

Fr John Flader

Fr John Flader is an American-born priest who arrived in Australia in 1968. A former director of the Catholic Adult Education Centre in Sydney, he has written Question Time for The Catholic Weekly since...