The question about how to approach the denial of Communion for pro-abortion politicians re-emerged recently when 2020 presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden was denied Communion by Father Robert Morey, pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, over his public advocacy for abortion.
To provide greater insight into the matter, the Register reached out for comment to a number of bishops during the recent fall assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore.
Father Morey’s denial was in accordance with a 2004 diocesan policy stating that “Catholics serving in public life espousing positions contrary to the teaching of the Church on the sanctity and inviolability of human life, especially those running for or elected to public office, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in any Catholic church within our jurisdictions: the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Dioceses of Charleston and Charlotte.”
However, Biden’s home diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, issued a statement saying that Bishop Francis Malooly “has consistently refrained from politicizing the Eucharist, and will continue to do so.”
“The Church’s teaching on the protection of human life from the moment of conception is clear and well-known,” the statement read, saying the bishop’s “preference” was “to interact with politicians individually who disagree with significant Church teachings.”
According to Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
Edward Peters, a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, wrote following the incident that “Canon 916 requires a believer not to approach for Holy Communion with a guilty conscience (a norm that, when observed correctly, prevents most problems in this area)” and that “Canon 915 positively requires ministers of Holy Communion, especially pastors, to withhold the sacrament from Catholics ‘obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.’”
“While there are relatively few examples of pastors withholding Holy Communion from Catholic politicians who support abortion, the refusal that Biden experienced should not have come as a surprise,” Peters continued. “He had been warned about approaching for Holy Communion in 2008 by Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, who told Biden that, because of his support for abortion, he would be refused Holy Communion if he approached that prelate, and by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput (then of Denver, now of Philadelphia), who implied likewise.”
And on Election Day 2008, Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, wrote a letter to Biden after it was disclosed that the vice-presidential candidate had received Communion the previous Sunday at a Mass he attended at a church in Bishop Ricard’s diocese.
Bishop Ricard’s letter cited relevant passages from the U.S. bishops’ 2004 document “Catholics in Political Life,” indicating that someone with Biden’s position on abortion should not present himself for Communion.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, told the Register via email that, in such cases, “each instance must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and decided by the local pastor and bishop based on their conversations with each of the individuals involved. That evaluation would determine whether or not the action is sinful; and if it is so, if it’s grave sin and whether it’s obstinate, persistent and manifest.”
In 2004, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in a memorandum to U.S. Catholic bishops that when a Catholic politician “consistently” campaigns and votes “for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws,” then “his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”
According to the memo, if the politician persists in the manifest grave sin and still presents himself for Communion, then “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.”
There have been several cases of Communion denial to other Catholic politicians over their advocacy for abortion. In 2009, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, privately barred former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., from Communion due to his stance on abortion. Kennedy later made this public in an interview.
In March 2009, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas publicly explained, in a column published in The Kansas City Star, why he had requested that Kathleen Sebelius, who was then the governor of Kansas, not present herself to receive Communion.
Archbishop Naumann told the Register last month that with respect to such cases, “there needs to be dialogue.”
“It’s a little bit different when you have a national politician coming in, but I think the method is you have to have this pastoral dialogue with the individual — but in the end, if they’re creating scandal,” then they can’t receive, he explained. He added that “this is what happened in our case with Gov. Sebelius, that her continuing to receive the Eucharist was really provoking scandal, and so we had asked her not to receive.”
“For more than 25 years, Gov. Sebelius has advocated and supported legalized abortion,” Archbishop Naumann wrote in 2009, explaining why he had barred her from Communion. “She has opposed such modest protections as parental notification for minors, waiting periods, informed consent and improved regulation of abortion clinics.”
Archbishop Naumann added, regarding the former Kansas governor who subsequently served as President Barack Obama’s Health and Human Services secretary, “I didn’t want to embarrass her publicly, but then when she didn’t abide by that, I had to. It’s not that we want to punish the politician, but we want to protect others from being misled.”
“I think it’s a case-by-case [basis] and should be only after there’s been dialogue and conversation and an effort to enlighten the person before you would take that extreme measure,” Archbishop Naumann concluded.
More recently, Bishop Paprocki issued a decree in June against Illinois Catholic lawmakers receiving Communion after they voted for extreme pro-abortion legislation that was signed into law by the governor.
Disagreement on the Issue
However not all U.S. bishops are in agreement with this response. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, who caused a stir during the bishops’ meeting by arguing that abortion is not “preeminent” among issues for the Catholic voter, told the Register that he didn’t think Communion denial was “appropriate.”
“I don’t think that is an appropriate step to take, for several reasons,” Bishop McElroy commented during the bishops’ fall meeting. “It takes a selective issue in Catholic teaching either saying that this is the most important issue, which makes one a Catholic, or else it is saying that there are other issues and thus people on all sides in every political position will be subject to having Communion denied because, frankly, there are no political leaders in our life today who are Catholic who live out even the great bulk of the broad teachings of Catholic social teaching in their political lives.”
“Unfortunately the partisan structure now bisects Catholic social teaching, and so you would unleash a whole series of things,” Bishop McElroy argued. “What are the issues that are important in Catholic life? Nobody's attesting to all of them, and thus do you withhold Communion from all public figures because they've all voted against important things? Secondly, it uses the Eucharist as a political tool. It will be seen as doing that. There’s no way it will not be seen [like that], and that harms both the Eucharist and the role of the Church in society, in my opinion.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York spoke out shortly after Biden was denied Communion and said that he wouldn’t have done it either.
“Whether that prudential judgment was wise, I don’t want to judge him either,” Cardinal Dolan said of Father Morey denying Biden Communion. “I wouldn’t do it.”
“Sometimes a public figure will come and talk to me about it. And I would advise them, and I think that priest [Father Morey] had a good point: You are publicly at odds with an issue of substance, critical substance — we’re talking about life and death and the Church,” Cardinal Dolan added.
‘They Know Better’
Archbishop Chaput told the Register at the bishops’ fall meeting that the method of denying Communion to politicians who break with the Church on abortion is “effective, because if we accept positions that are contrary to the teachings of Jesus, why would we pretend to be in communion with him?”
“Going to Communion when we stand apart from what he teaches is really a violation of basic principles of integrity and truth,” Archbishop Chaput emphasized. “I think it would be better if the politicians who don’t accept Church teaching would just stay away from Communion rather than force a conflict. They know better than that.”
Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, told the Register at the bishops’ conference that for Biden’s recent Communion denial, Father Morey “was following the directives of the diocese, so I think that’s probably what he’s obliged to do.”
“My approach in the past has been to actually talk to Catholic politicians and urge them not to present themselves to Communion,” Bishop Boyea said. “My experience has been that they’ve done that; they’ve followed my advice on this matter. That’s dealing with local politicians, people that I’ve come to know, and so you’ve got to deal with that.”
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.