By Phil Lawler | Aug 17, 2020
Another presidential campaign is upon us, and so it’s time for another round of feisty debate on the time-worn topic: Should Joe Biden be allowed to receive Communion?
That debate, as practiced by American Catholics, was not always about Biden specifically. There was John Kerry before him, and Geraldine Ferraro behind that, and the same question has been asked regarding Nancy Pelosi and the late Ted Kennedy and many other Catholic politicians. But Biden himself has been the main topic at least since 2008.
That year, you may recall, Biden was candidate for the vice-presidency. When he visited Florida on the campaign trail, Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola issued an open letter reminding him that “all must examine their consciences as to their worthiness to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord. This examination includes fidelity to the moral teaching of the Church…” Lest Biden or any other reader fail to grasp the point, Bishop Ricard pointed to the senator’s “profound disconnection from your human and personal obligation to protect the weakest and most innocent among us: the child in the womb.”
Notice that Bishop Ricard did not forbid Biden from receiving the Eucharist, much less instruct priests to turn him away from Communion. He merely asked the candidate—as the Catholic bishops of the US have asked all candidates, and as perennial Church teaching has asked all Catholics—to make an examination of conscience before approaching the Blessed Sacrament.
But a few weeks later, when Biden was the vice-president-elect, another Florida prelate, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, said plainly that pro-abortion politicians should not be barred from Communion. In a revealing blog post, Bishop Lynch said that he took that position because “one keeps open a dialogue with the Joe Bidens of the world.”
And how has the dialogue worked out? Twelve years later Biden is just as firmly committed to legal, tax-subsidized abortion on demand. Yet the “profound disconnection” that Bishop Ricard spotted in 2008 is even more evident today. In the intervening years Biden has also embraced the cause of same-sex marriage—even officiating at one such union—vowed to rescind the legal protection extended by the Trump administration to the Little Sisters of the Poor, and now chosen a running-mate who views membership in the Knights of Columbus as subversive activity.
The Catholic bishops who say that Biden should still be allowed to receive Communion—and they are, apparently, still the majority in the US bishops’ conference—argue that it is wrong to politicize the Eucharist. That is certainly true. But when the issue of Communion has been politicized—by a candidate who trumpets his Catholic faith, who runs advertisements about the inspiration he receives from that faith—how should prudent bishops react?
Four years ago, during another presidential campaign season, I wrote:
The canon lawyers see the need for disciplinary action. The loyal lay Catholics see the need. Even the Protestants recognize the need. The only people who don’t see the urgency of the situation (aside from those confused people who don’t object to legal abortion) are the bishops—who are, unfortunately, the only people in a position to enforce the discipline that is so very necessary.
Why has Father James Martin been invited to address the Democratic convention at which Biden will be formally nominated? Is it because the Democratic leadership wants a blessing from a Catholic priest? No; it is because the Party wants a blessing from this particular Catholic priest, a Jesuit with an enthusiastic following among homosexual activists. Father Martin’s participation gives the Biden campaign a unique opportunity to push forward the gay agenda while simultaneously defending itself against well-earned charges of anti-Catholic bias.
If the ultimate goal of ecclesiastical leadership is, always and everywhere, to “keep open a dialogue,” then Biden and his ilk will continue to exploit their ties to the Church whenever it suits their political needs, while scoffing at Catholic moral teaching when they find that posture more popular. On the other hand, if the goal of the bishops is to preserve the integrity of the faith and the sacraments…
The debate over whether Joe Biden should receive Communion—whether Catholic politicians should face public discipline when they repudiate Church teaching—has droned on for more than a generation. The arguments are all on one side; the action (or rather inaction) all on the other. The American bishops have refused to accept the obvious implications of both canon law and their own public statements.
At some point, the willingness of Church leaders to maintain ties with politicians who work actively against the faith becomes a source of scandal. I leave it to my readers to decide when that line is crossed, and scandal occurs. Is it when a candidate votes to send taxpayer dollars to subsidize abortuaries? When he pronounces two men as legal marital partners? When he prosecutes nuns for living their faith? Or is there nothing that a political candidate could do, that would prompt bishops to admit that he had separated himself from the Church?
As it happens Bishop Lynch addressed just that question, in his blog post twelve years ago. “Does he give scandal?” the bishop asked, referring specifically to Biden. He answered his own question: “I would suggest that scandal is pretty hard to give in the Church at this time.”
Sad to say, that statement may well be true. Expectations are so low, standards so relaxed, the demands on the faithful so paltry, that we have lost our capacity to be shocked by outrageous behavior. But if the faithful are no longer scandalized by wayward politicians, it is because the men charged with preserving the Church from scandal—the bishops—have dithered for so long.
Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org.