At one point this weekend, Joe Biden will take his place in a line of people approaching the altar of a Catholic church to receive Communion.
The US President, a devout Catholic whose speeches regularly include Biblical references and who wears a rosary that belonged to his late son, attends mass every weekend – in Washington, his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, or wherever he is while traveling. If the traditional Sunday morning Eucharistic service is not possible because of his schedule, he will receive the sacrament on Saturday evening as permitted by the Roman Catholic Church.
“It truly is an encounter with God,” said Father Kevin Gillespie of Holy Trinity in Washington, the church Biden usually attends in the capital, Atlantic earlier this year. For Biden, this “sacred and intimate moment” is a “gift which enriches his faith”, and “we certainly encourage him to improve his intimacy with God through the Eucharist”.
But not everyone in the Catholic Church in America is so enthusiastic about Biden receiving Communion. Next week, a national online meeting of U.S. bishops will discuss whether the president and other prominent politicians should be denied the sacraments because of his stance on the right to abortion.
“How can he say he’s a devout Catholic and does these things that are against the teaching of the church? Bishop Joseph Naumann, chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) committee on pro-life activities, asked last month. Biden’s position was a “serious moral evil” that presents a “unique problem” for the church, Naumann said.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leading conservative and critic of Pope Francis, went further, arguing that politicians who “publicly and stubbornly” support abortion are “apostates” who should not only be banned from taking Communion, but deserve excommunication.
At their meeting, the bishops will consider a document to clarify the Church’s position on the Eucharist, and decide whether to commission additional work on the circumstances under which the sacraments can be refused. The proposal needs the support of at least two-thirds of the USCCB’s 280 bishops – and more than 60 have already called for a suspension of all discussions, citing divisions within the conference.
Among those opposed to this decision is Robert McElroy, Bishop of San Diego, who wrote in America Magazine, the Jesuit newspaper, that “the Eucharist is being militarized and deployed as a tool of political warfare. It must not happen.
A letter from a senior Vatican official last month urged U.S. bishops not to rush any debate or decision, and there has been speculation that the first meeting between President Biden and Pope Francis could take place in Vatican the day before the opening of the USCCB virtual session. This would be seen as a strong signal from Rome.
Regardless of the outcome of the USCCB’s deliberations, the decision to deny Communion to an individual parishioner rests with the local bishop. Wilton Gregory of Washington and Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Delaware, have both made it clear that Biden is welcome to receive Communion in churches in their dioceses.
Public defense of Biden’s Father Gillespie attending mass has sparked angry phone calls, letters and emails. He told the Guardian it seemed best to refrain from speaking further about the issue, but said the president “has been and will be welcome to receive the Holy Eucharist” in his church.
Biden, the second Catholic to occupy the White House after John F Kennedy, said his faith shaped “everything I do” and “will serve as an anchor” throughout his tenure. In his book Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, he writes: “My idea of myself, of family, of community, of the world at large comes directly from my religion.
On abortion, Biden said he personally believes that life begins with conception, but recognizes that others do not share his point of view. “What I’m not ready to do is impose on others a specific point of view that stems from my faith,” he said in 2015.
In recent months, the Biden administration has lifted restrictions on federal funding for research involving human fetal tissue, repealed a Trump policy banning organizations that refer women for abortions from receiving federal grants, and has enabled women to remotely obtain a prescription for an abortion pill during the pandemic.
The Catholic Church says that Catholics in public life must uphold principles consistent with its doctrine. But in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in March, more than two-thirds of American Catholics said Biden’s views on abortion shouldn’t prevent him from receiving Communion.
According to exit polls conducted in last November’s presidential election, just over half of American Catholics (51%) voted for Biden, compared to 45% who voted Democratic in 2016; and 47% voted for Trump, up from 52% in the previous election.
Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the USCCB’s proposal “serves to further polarize an already sharply divided episcopy, some of which have been overt opponents of Pope Francis’ relatively progressive papacy.
“The proposal to exclude Biden and all election officials who support legal communion abortion is an effort by the conservative bishops to solidify their base of regular church followers who are the blood of the church. But ecclesial policies of exclusion will only lead to a greater defection from the benches, in particular among Millennials and Generation Z. ”
Michael Budde, professor of Catholic studies and political science at DePaul University in Chicago, said Biden’s exclusion from communion “will rightly be seen as a gesture of desperation, an attempt to coerce what does not ‘was not won by persuasion or dialogue “.
He added: “There is no consensus among the Catholic faithful on this measure; significantly, there is no real support for this at the level of the worldwide Catholic communion as expressed by Pope Francis. That there are finally some prominent American Cardinals and Bishops who are fed up with this impossible strategy may be an indication that one day a better vision may finally emerge. “
A scathing editorial from the National Catholic Reporter earlier this month said that the “tragic reality” of the proposal’s implementation was that “it will seal the branding deal for Catholicism in the United States as a cultural war project.
“This culture war… is not the church of mercy and encounter that Pope Francis is trying to offer the world. It also doesn’t sound like what Galileo’s carpenter son preached and died for.