REGISTER ROUNDTABLE: A Pope, a President and a Crisis of Communion
The Register speaks with Jayd Henricks, Stephen White and Ashley McGuire in the wake of President Joe Biden’s meeting with Pope Francis
Pope Francis’ meeting with President Joe Biden Oct. 29 week created controversy — not because of anything that we actually know was said during the meeting, but because of how one of the participants characterized the exchange.
“No, it didn’t,” President Biden said in response to a reporter’s question over whether abortion had come up in the meeting. “It came up — we just talked about the fact that he was happy I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving Communion.”
The Vatican declined to corroborate Biden’s version of events. Nonetheless, the president’s somewhat confused statement was seized upon by the media as the latest and perhaps most important entry in the ongoing dispute over whether the U.S. bishops should issue any kind of collective teaching in response to the pastoral crisis of Catholic politicians who publicly promote abortion — an intrinsic evil that Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced as “murder” — and participate in Eucharistic Communion. Some commentators even went so far as to declare that the conversation was “done,” as if Biden’s statement were some kind of ex cathedra declaration.
To make sense of what transpired and the wider conversation around abortion-supporting politicians and the Eucharist, we asked three Catholic leaders for their perspective. Our participants for this inaugural “Register Roundtable” include Jayd Henricks, former executive director of government relations at the USCCB; Stephen White, executive director of The Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America; and Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow at the Catholic Association.
Complete the sentence: “The most significant impact of President Biden’s meeting with Pope Francis will be…”
Jayd Henricks: “…an increase in resolve among the U.S. bishops to speak on behalf of the Church rather than allow President Biden, intentionally or unintentionally, to become the authoritative teaching voice of the Church.”
Stephen White: “…a continuation of the appalling, indefensible status quo.”
Ashley McGuire: “…people realizing that it was actually rather insignificant.” The Pope meets with many heads of state, but the media paid such extreme attention to this meeting because Biden is our first Catholic president in decades and because the media is obsessed with abortion and Biden’s efforts to “thread the needle” by simultaneously touting and flouting his Catholic faith.
It has been noted that a lot of Catholics who embrace both the Church’s teachings on the Eucharist and abortion, and also aren’t in any rush to disagree with the Holy Father, are disappointed and frustrated by what was apparently said — or unsaid — during last Friday’s meeting. What’s your advice to them?
Henricks: Politicians use the public stage to advance their own interests or the interests of their party. This is not new and should not be surprising. What is important is not what President Biden said after his meeting with the Holy Father but what the Holy Father himself has said many times with respect to abortion and communion with the Church, not to mention what the long-standing and clear teaching of the Church is.
White: Don’t pay attention to hearsay — whether it’s good or bad, edifying or unsettling. A good father doesn’t communicate with his children by starting rumors and hoping those rumors eventually get back to the kids. The Pope doesn’t communicate important messages to the faithful (or the bishops) by playing the presidential equivalent of “telephone.”
McGuire: Whenever I see that the Pope has said something that made headlines, I have to go and read it in its entirety, because it is almost always taken out of context. In this case, we don’t even know what the Pope actually said to President Biden other than what we saw on the cameras. So my advice to people would simply be to not accept anyone’s spin on what was said or unsaid by the Holy Father, unless it is documented in writing, confirmed by the Vatican, and read within the full context of what was said. And to trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Holy Father and the Church.
If you had a magic wand, and could banish one misleading/incoherent/untruthful talking point in this whole discourse about abortion and Communion from ever being uttered again, which one would it be and why?
Henricks: That questions around the worthiness of receiving Communion are about politicizing or “weaponizing” the Eucharist. The Church’s teaching on Eucharistic coherence is not about political maneuvering. It is about the salvation of souls, those who have separated themselves from full communion with the Church and the faithful more generally. To suggest that care for the soul of someone who advocates for the legal protection of abortion is a political act completely misunderstands the issue.
White: The idea that the bishops are “waging a culture war” by defending the unborn. The bishops are responding to profound scandal — a moral, spiritual, social, and ecclesial crisis — which they did not choose and which they’d be negligent to ignore. If defending life in the womb makes one political party more uncomfortable than another, that’s not the bishops’ fault.
McGuire: It would be great to once and for all clarify the fact that when the Church speaks on matters of prudential issues, it does not have the same authority as statements regarding universal and foundational moral doctrine. Doctrinal issues get to the fundamental questions about right and wrong, the Christian faith and human dignity. They are immutable and unchanging, and the Pope does not have the authority to change them. The Church leaves prudential policy matters to lawmakers pursuing the common good to discuss and debate. There is no Church teaching on carbon taxes, for example, and when the Pope speaks about air conditioners, it is simply not in the same category as abortion, marriage or religious liberty. I so wish that the media and lawmakers with certain agendas would stop conflating the two categories. It is at the heart of what is causing so much confusion today.
The word “scandal” gets used a lot in the conversation about the Eucharist and Catholics who publicly and persistently contravene Church doctrine. But scandal isn’t just about offending someone’s sensibilities; it’s acting in a way that could lead them to sin. In a case like President Biden’s, paint me a picture of how that actually might happen.
Henricks: It is obvious that President Biden’s support for abortion, coupled with his affirmation that he is a devout Catholic in good standing, can lead others to think their support for abortion does not separate themselves from God. It also can lead someone to approach Communion casually, without a proper disposition to receive the grace of the sacrament. The Scriptures are clear that receiving unworthily can be quite harmful to one’s spiritual life. President Biden’s example, therefore, is likely a serious scandal for many of the faithful. We must pray that he sees the errors of his ways, converts and leads others into a proper relationship with Christ and his Church.
White: Here’s an example: Imagine you’re a young, pro-life Democrat who wants to get into politics. You want to serve the common good through public service. But leadership insists you toe the party line on abortion. How do you resist that pressure to compromise when your party is filled with high-profile Catholics who crossed that line decades ago and are welcomed with open arms by Church leaders? Do you leave your party? Do you abandon public service? Or do you compromise on this one thing — this foundational thing — in the hope that it affords you the chance to do good elsewhere. Isn’t that what so many others have done before you? Maybe you just need to grow up and make the same compromises so many have made before you. Many of the bishops will understand, too!
That’s the effect of scandal: It creates a sense of solidarity, but a solidarity of sin. By the way, Our Lord was rather unsparing in his warnings about leading others to sin: Check out Matthew 18:6-7.
McGuire: My own family is probably a good example. I get emails and texts all the time from them, confused and scandalized by all of this. I am a convert, and they are Protestant bystanders, who simply don’t understand how on the one hand, they could not come to Communion at my wedding because they reject the belief that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, but others who aggressively and publicly reject other fundamental Catholic teachings can. It’s just deeply confusing to people, and I sincerely understand the bishops’ desire to protect and guard the teachings of the Church and reverence for the Eucharist, the very thing that brings us together as Catholics.
Stephen, you’ve found media efforts to pit Pope Francis’ apparent pastoral approach with Biden against the U.S. bishops’ model of engagement with pro-abortion Catholic politicians perplexing, commenting that “the U.S. bishops have literally tried that pastoral approach for *decades*: it’s literally how we got into this current mess to begin with.” What’s the “mess” we’re in, and what alternative approaches, if any, would you encourage the bishops to take?
White: The current “mess” is one in which Catholics at the highest level of government openly insist that the industrial-scale destruction of human life is not only compatible with true freedom and justice but is a fundamental human right. That’s a lie that has cost millions of innocent lives, harmed millions of families, poisoned our national politics and caused deep division in the Church.
I would encourage the bishops to do two things: First, pursue the course they seem to be following with their document on Eucharistic coherence: a clear restatement of the Church’s Eucharistic theology in its full context. That is clearly needed.
Second: I’d suggest they re-evaluate the failed pastoral strategy of the past 40 years. I’d encourage them to ask themselves whether 40 or 50 years of open-ended “dialogue” without meaningful pastoral action have helped anything, or made thing much, much worse.
A draft version of the USCCB’s statement on the Eucharist is circulating. It looks like, contrary to the fears/hopes of some, there’s no explicit prohibition of President Biden receiving Communion. Instead, the drafters chose to highlight at length St. John Paul II’s 2003 teaching that Communion can be withheld out of “pastoral concern” in cases of outward conduct that is clearly and steadfastly “contrary to the moral norm.” What’s your initial reaction to the approach the bishops appear to be taking?
Henricks: It is unsurprising. The document was never going to name President Biden or any specific person because the USCCB does not have any authority to speak to a particular person in a particular diocese. While principles can be affirmed, this is a pastoral question that belongs properly with the local bishop. St. John Paul II’s explanation is clear and most fitting for the USCCB document. It draws from sacred tradition and provides clear principles but leaves the application to the local bishop to properly discern.
White: The decision to withhold Communion — which is a last resort, not a first resort — lies with individual bishops. But the willingness of individual bishops to break the status quo is going to depend on having the support and backing of their fellow bishops. If it’s just one guy saying, “Enough is enough, I have to defend life and the integrity of the Church,” he’s easy to paint as a pariah. If half or two-thirds of the bishops make that decision, and ground that decision in the full richness of the Church’s Eucharistic theology, it’s something totally different.
McGuire: I think the bishops have the extremely challenging task of trying to restore unity and clarity in both a gentle and firm way, while being highly scrutinized by the anti-Catholic press and speaking to an understandably confused laity. I think we should all give them the benefit of the doubt that their intentions come from a place of love, for the Church and the laity, and be patient as they undertake this difficult task in these very confusing and contentious times.
Responses have been edited for style and length.
- register roundtable
- ashley mcguire
- stephen white
- pro-abortion catholic politicians
- joe biden
- pope francis