Joe Biden, a Roman Catholic who became president 60 years after John F. Kennedy, is the second Roman Catholic to do so. In terms of regular attendance at worship services, he is undoubtedly the most religiously committed president since Jimmy Carter.
It’s therefore somewhat surprising that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took deliberate action during its spring conference to draft and publish a “document about the Eucharist”. Some proponents claimed that this was meant to deprive the president and other pro-choice Catholic politicians of communion. After a short but intense debate, the vote was 168 to 55 with six abstentions. This margin is important because the two-thirds vote would be required to approve the statement that the bishops are considering (possibly to be released as early as November). The Vatican would have to review it in advance, which could also slow down or stop the condemnatory actions.
However, unless something truly extraordinary occurs, the final decision about allowing or denigrating communion to Biden and other politicians based on their public policies on abortion (or other related issues like same-sex marital relationships) would be up to the individual bishops and, in some cases, individual priests. In Washington, D.C., the two most important bishops in the Biden family are not part of the conservative group of those calling for a “statement” that clarifies the obligation of communicants, particularly those in high-profile public offices, to support church teachings. The president cannot be present at the White House and Delaware every Sunday. A landscape of hostile priests or bishops (such as the one who denied Biden communion to South Carolina in 2019), would be embarrassing, if not problematic.
It is possible that the conservative episcopal action against Biden was simply meant to escalate tensions in a larger culture war against “liberals,” Democrats or Pope Francis. Pope Francis is very friendly towards Biden, but is firm in his views on abortion. The same U.S. bishops that want to intimidate or sanction Biden are part of a religiousopolitical resistance against Francis’s unorthodox views on poverty and climate change. The New York Times saw the vote on a statement as a power move of a Catholic “conservative” movement that is in open rebellion against the Vatican.
It is possible that some of the excitement within the anti-abortion movement, in which conservative Catholics have closely collaborated with conservative Evangelicals, was reflected in the decision to press ahead on the statement.
Both sides are careful to present their views in a way that is consistent with Catholic tradition. The conservatives claim that faithfulness to Church teachings is part and parcel of being “worthy” to receive communion. While their opponents warn against the “weaponization” of the Eucharist for political ends, both sides of this dispute are careful not to misunderstand the other. Protestants may find this argument strange, as they generally do not restrict access to communion to their own members and are less likely to profane the ceremony with non-worthy communicants. The intra-Catholic argument is a reflection of wider tensions over church-state relations and religious-secular cooperation. However, Biden will have to make a difficult transition from George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan by claiming personal piety and not attending church often.
Francis and his White House friend have not yet commented publicly on the implicit threats made by the bishops. Jason Horowitz pointed out that the silence of the pope may be due to differences with the U.S hierarchy. “The divergence between the conservative American church and Francis’ agenda is now so obvious that it becomes unremarkable. Vatican officials and experts stated Saturday that the silence of the pope also highlighted how surprising the American vote, which was made public Friday to the Vatican.
It is important to consider how regular Catholic lay Catholics in the pews would react to this fight. American Catholics ignore Church teachings regarding contraception and are, according to all evidence as likely as other Americans to support legalized abortion and same-sex marriage (not including divorce-and-remarriage or full equality for women in the clergy) than any other Americans. The fight the conservative bishops are waging is one they could lose not only in the contexts of Catholicism around the world but also in their own parishes.