Biden, political values and the Catholic Church: Best if finessed?
US President Joe Biden is a devout, practising Catholic whose political stand on abortion contradicts the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. Some within the Church have argued that he should be barred from taking Communion for this reason. Although Biden declares that his religion and relationship with church authorities is a ‘private matter’, this distinction between private and public is something the Church does not accept.
After his official meeting with Pope Francis on 29 October 2021, Biden said: “We just talked about the fact he was happy I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving Communion”. But there was no mention of this issue in the official statement of the Holy See, which suggests the Vatican may continue to handle it informally.
From the perspective of the Church, the moral principles of conduct it teaches are primarily addressed to its members, who have joined the religion voluntarily, and are meant to lead them to salvation. There is, however, a part of the Church’s social teaching that is addressed to ‘all men and women of good will’ – understood to include members of other religions or even non-believers.
Following the submission in June 2021 of a formal question by the US Council of Bishops, the Church’s hierarchs are seeking a response in line with the faith and with Canon Law. Catholics in the US and elsewhere want to avoid drawing their church into the polarizing dynamics of ‘culture wars’. This is part of a broader discussion within the Church, exemplifying intrinsic tensions between state and religious authority.
The Holy Communion
The arguments for excluding Biden from taking Holy Communion are complex. The sacrament of the Eucharist is the Catholic Church’s most important, as it involves receiving the body and the blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine – not merely a symbolic, but a real, physical acceptance of God inside oneself. For centuries, receiving Communion was reserved for baptised Catholics and subject to various conditions such as appropriate prayers or, vitally, wilful renunciation of all acts in deliberate and voluntary breach of the Ten Commandments or the Precepts of the Church. Anyone who has committed such a mortal sin, irrespective of its substance, should confess it and receive absolution before receiving the Eucharist. This precondition is referred to as ‘sanctifying grace’.
Additionally, in the US and elsewhere, there is an ongoing debate over the correct understanding of participation in Mass and acceptance of the Eucharist. George Weigel, a Catholic writer and probably the best known biographer of John Paul II, has noted that misperception of these elements is widespread among believers. In this context, of President Biden’ behaviour can be seen from the Church’s perspective as contributing to banalisation of the Holy Communion – perhaps one reason why the US Conference of Catholic Bishops requested specific instructions regarding the situation.
Abortion: censure and guidance
The Church teaches that a human life starts at conception, and therefore, every termination of pregnancy means killing a human being who is defenceless. This is why the Code of Canon Law stipulates a special punishment for those who undertake actions specifically aimed at terminating a pregnancy (as distinct from, for example, causing an abortion in the attempt to save the life or health of the mother). Such persons bring upon themselves the latae sententiae (automatic, by force of the law itself) penalty of excommunication – exclusion from the communion of believers (Can. 1398, Code of Canon Law, 1991).
An interesting aspect is the justification of the automatic character of this censure. The Church assumes that, through the act alone, the person committing it demonstrates that he or she is detached from the Church and cannot be a member of the communion of believers. By nature, excommunication is a ‘medicinal penalty’: it can be revoked, and the excommunicated person can receive absolution if they admit their sin and repent.
Separate guidelines exist for public figures, including lawmakers who wish to remain compliant with the teachings of the Church. In 2002, Joseph Ratzinger, at the time Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a Doctrinal Note. The Note’s Point 4 addresses abortion:
John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them. As John Paul II has taught in his Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, “an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality”.
(…It) must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.
As the above excerpt shows, the Church clearly instructs politicians to vote and act in favour of any legislative measure limiting the admissibility of abortion, even if it does not prevent it completely. In light of this, by increasing accessibility to abortion, Biden has failed to follow the guidelines. Notably, the Church has taken the issue of protection of human life beyond the sphere of faith-related matters. It follows, in the Church’s view, that any man or woman of good will should accept, based on logical reasoning, that human life starts at conception, and be ready to protect it.
What are the options?
The question posed formally by American bishops requires a formal answer. This process may take time, making its way through different institutions and offices of the US episcopate or the Vatican.
But in the meantime, there are – in principle – two options.
The first is the more problematic one for the Church. It would involve formulating principles according to which the bishop heading a given diocese could forbid administering Holy Communion to a person based on an analysis of that person’s statements or political activity (how they voted, what bills they proposed). This would necessitate creating a separate dicastery (department in Vatican Administration) to conduct such analyses and prepare recommendations for bishops on each individual case. Such measures have been taken in the past; they involved officially excommunicating people for their actions. As a latae sententiae excommunication, this penalty could be revoked if the sinner changed his or her behaviour and publicly repented. Throughout history, the Church has used excommunication as a political tool; in the Middle Ages, a ruler would in practice lose his authority once excommunicated, as every Catholic could then refuse to obey him.
The second option, which is commonly practiced nowadays involves individual accountability. Receiving the Eucharist while out of grace (having committed a mortal sin without having confessed and repented, or under a Church penalty), a member of the Catholic Church brings upon him or herself the spiritual punishment which will result in eternal damnation after death. From the point of view of the Church, such a person commits an offence and suffers the consequences of it himself, making it unnecessary for the Church to intervene.
It seems that this second solution could defuse the situation. Regardless of the final decision, conducting this debate will require much delicacy and discretion, also from the Roman Curia, so as not to fuel speculation or increase divisions within the Church. What remains open for the Church is the issue mentioned at the outset of this blog post: whether it has done everything in its power to protect the exceptionality and dignity of the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Radosław Michalski (EUI PhD, 2021) is a political scientist and a theologian. His research focuses on the relations between religion and politics, faith in public life, Catholic social teaching and religion as a political tool.