WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden is the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for president amid uncertain times, as the U.S. battles the coronavirus pandemic. But for the U.S. bishops, there is an additional uncertainty associated with his candidacy: How should they respond to a Catholic presidential nominee who overtly supports abortion rights?
Biden once again demonstrated his pro-abortion credentials on the campaign trail on April 28, this time asserting them in the context of the question of whether abortion should qualify as an “essential medical service” during the pandemic.
“We need to ensure that women have access to all health services during this crisis,” Biden said at a virtual town hall with Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. “Abortion is an essential health-care service.”
This was only one of a series of times that Biden has defended abortion on the 2020 campaign trail, in direct contradiction to the Church’s teachings about the intrinsic evil of abortion. And while “pro-choice” political sentiments have been the norm for Democratic presidential candidates in the era since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationally, Biden’s Catholic faith adds another element to the pastoral challenge for U.S. Church leaders in this electoral cycle.
Biden will be only the fourth Catholic major party presidential nominee in U.S. history. The Democratic Party’s 1928 nominee, Al Smith, was the only Catholic nominee before President John F. Kennedy in 1960 and John Kerry in 2004.
The Kerry Precedent
By the time Kerry became the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, unlike with the earlier Catholic presidential nominees, abortion was a major issue in U.S. politics, and the bishops faced the dilemma of a nominally Catholic politician opposing the Church’s clear teaching that abortion is “gravely contrary to the moral law.”
Kerry’s public defiance of Church teaching on abortion ignited a debate about refusing Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law states that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
Cardinal Raymond Burke, then serving as the archbishop of St. Louis, stated in January 2004 that he would not give Kerry Communion due to his abortion stance. A number of other bishops supported that position, but Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., who was in 2019 laicized for credible allegations of sexual abuse, sided with some other U.S. bishops against denying pro-abortion politicians Communion.
The controversy intensified after McCarrick led a USCCB Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians and in that capacity received a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The future pope’s letter, titled “Worthiness to Receive Communion: General Principles,” communicated that “regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws),” his pastor should instruct the person about the Church’s teaching and tell him not to present himself for Holy Communion until he changes his pro-abortion stance. “When ‘these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,’ and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, ‘the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it,’” the letter clearly stated.
McCarrick was criticized for coming to conclusions in his task’s force June 15, 2004, interim report to the U.S. bishops that appeared to contradict Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter, which was not released until after it was subsequently leaked to media outlets. McCarrick wrote that denial of Holy Communion “could further divide our Church and that it could have serious unintended consequences. For example, it could be more difficult for faithful Catholics to serve in public life because they might be seen not as standing up for principle, but as under pressure from the hierarchy.”
“In light of these and other concerns, the task force urges for the most part renewed efforts and persuasion, not penalties,” McCarrick’s report said.
Later in June 2004, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a document titled “Catholics in Political Life.” While the document stressed that the U.S. bishops “do not endorse or oppose” individual political candidates, it communicated the U.S. bishops’ “unequivocal commitment to the legal protection of human life from the moment of conception until natural death” and highlighted that Catholics need to act in support of these principles and policies in public life.”
And unlike McCarrick’s interim report, it did not advocate against denying Communion to Catholic politicians who disregard Church teachings regarding the sanctity of human life. Instead, it stated, “such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.” Cardinal Ratzinger subsequently advised this position was “very much in harmony” with the general principles sent by the CDF.
Biden’s 2008 Campaign
Before his 2020 presidential run, Biden had already received public criticism from the U.S. bishops for his stance supporting legal abortion at various times during his political career. In September 2008, Archbishop Charles Chaput and Bishop James Conley responded to comments Biden, then a senator from Delaware, made on Meet the Press, as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, that while he was “prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception,” he would not impose that belief on anyone through law because that would be “inappropriate in a pluralistic society.”
“Abortion is a foundational issue” and “is always grievously wrong,” Archbishop Chaput and Bishop Conley stated, adding that, “in reality, modern biology knows exactly when human life begins: at the moment of conception. Religion has nothing to do with it.”
“If, as Sen. Biden said, ‘I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception,’ then he is not merely wrong about the science of new life; he also fails to defend the innocent life he already knows is there,” the two bishops said.
Biden also was corrected by his own bishop, Bishop Francis Malooly of Wilmington, for misrepresenting Church teaching on abortion in an October 2008 newspaper interview. And he was publicly rebuked by Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, after he received Communion during a campaign trip to Florida the weekend before the election.
“I also observe, by your support for laws that fail to protect the unborn, a profound disconnection from your human and personal obligation to protect the weakest and most innocent among us: the child in the womb,” Bishop Ricard commented in a letter that was posted on the diocesan website.
The 2020 Campaign
Biden’s 2020 candidacy has already revived some of the debate regarding a pro-abortion Catholic politician receiving Communion. Following the trajectory of his party, he has shifted to a more extreme position on abortion throughout his 2020 campaign, reversing his stance against taxpayer funding of abortion and arguing that legislation should be pursued by Congress to codify the Roe v. Wade decision into federal law. And he was denied Communion last October by Father Robert Morey, pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, due to his public advocacy for abortion.
Russell Shaw, a Catholic author who served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987, told the Register that, as the 2020 campaign heats up, the bishops could potentially speak out again if Biden presents his positions a certain way.
“If Biden says — in response to a question or otherwise — that his position on abortion is one that a Catholic can responsibly hold, the bishops would be obliged to say that isn’t so,” Shaw said. “If the question were whether to give Communion to Biden, the bishops would probably say that they have no collective position on that, and it is up to ordinaries how they handle it in their own dioceses.”
Added Shaw, “The really crucial thing for the bishops as pastoral leaders is to make it perfectly clear to Catholics generally that the fact that Biden or some other candidate holds views in conflict with the clear, authoritative teaching of the Church does not somehow make those views acceptable for Catholics to hold — and that is not a political position, but a pastoral one.”
Unlike Kerry in 2004, Biden has the added controversy of being in favor of same-sex “marriage” and the transgender movement, stances that are both in opposition to Catholic teaching. He earned indirect condemnation from the USCCB when he presided over a same-sex wedding in 2016. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, New York, and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami wrote a statement generally condemning the action without mentioning Biden by name.
“When a prominent Catholic politician publicly and voluntarily officiates at a ceremony to solemnize the relationship of two people of the same-sex,” they wrote, “confusion arises regarding Catholic teaching on marriage and the corresponding moral obligations of Catholics. What we see is a counter witness, instead of a faithful one founded in the truth.”
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, a doctor of canon law, highlighted specific passages of the 2004 “Catholics in Political Life” document in response to the Register’s question about how the U.S. bishops could prudently respond to a Catholic presidential nominee like Biden who is pro-abortion and pro-same-sex “marriage.”
Bishop Paprocki made note of the passage stating “if those who perform an abortion and those who cooperate willingly in the action are fully aware of the objective evil of what they do, they are guilty of grave sin and thereby separate themselves from God’s grace.”
“Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good,” states another passage highlighted by Bishop Paprocki.
In response to the Register’s question about whether he believed Biden ought to be denied Communion due to his abortion stance, Bishop Paprocki said that “the primary people to answer that question would be the pastor of the parish and the bishop of the diocese where Mr. Biden has a domicile or quasi-domicile.”
“The question arises only secondarily for other pastors and bishops if and when Mr. Biden would be attending Mass in another parish or diocese, as may happen if he is on the campaign trail,” he continued. “If his campaign schedule were to indicate a stop in central Illinois with his attendance at Mass at one of the churches in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, I would reach out to his campaign staff to seek to have a pastoral conversation with him about this prior to making any public statement.”
‘Preeminent Priority’ Debate
How the U.S. bishops would respond to Biden’s presidential nomination remains to be seen, but at their November general assembly, the U.S. bishops had a heated debate over whether opposition to abortion should continue to be a “preeminent priority” for the Catholic voter. A new letter, supplementing the bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” specifically cited opposing abortion as a “preeminent priority.” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego objected to the phrasing during the bishops’ discussion of the letter, explaining to the Register afterward, “My own view is that there are three preeminent issues in American public life today for the Catholic faithful citizen: One is abortion, one is the environment, and one is immigration.”
In a floor vote on the matter, the vast majority of U.S. bishops disagreed with Bishop McElroy’s position, including Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, who had added the language to the letter.
“The teaching about the preeminence of the priority of life is decades old,” Archbishop Naumann told the Register at the time. “You can go back to [Pope] John Paul II and several of his statements and his encyclicals and [Pope] Benedict XVI: There are Vatican documents from the congregation, all that lift up this as an important issue, and Pope Francis has continued that.”
In January, Pope Francis reportedly affirmed that two of the areas where Biden is opposed to Church teaching are fundamentally important for Catholic voters. According to Archbishop Naumann, following an ad limina visit, Pope Francis agreed with the U.S. bishops’ identifying abortion as the “preeminent” priority, Catholic News Service reported.
“His response to that was, ‘Of course, it is. It’s the most fundamental right,’” Archbishop Naumann told CNS. “He said, ‘This is not first a religious issue; it’s a human-rights issue,’ which is so true.”
The Holy Father also reportedly named opposition to the transgender movement as another important issue for the Catholic voter.
During the ad limina visit, according to St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson, Pope Francis said “there’s another significant issue, and that would be ‘transgender’ — where we are trying to make all human beings the same; it makes no difference; you can be whoever you want to be.”
Archbishop Carlson told CNS the Pope said transgender proponents believe people are “all one and that there’s no difference, which would fly in the face of what (St.) John Paul II talked about on complementarity and it would fly in the face of the dignity of the woman and the dignity of the man, that we could just change into whatever we wanted.”
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.