By Christopher Lamb
A leading church lawyer has questioned the legitimacy of any move by bishops in the United States to bar President Joe Biden from communion, and warned that it risks making US Catholicism look “like a sect”.
Professor Kurt Martens, who teaches canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC and is a consultant to the US Bishops’ Conference, said church law and tradition meant a head of state could be judged only by a Pope.
Last week, the US bishops voted to proceed with drafting a document on the eucharist, which is expected to admonish Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. Biden, who is the second Catholic to be president, attends mass each Sunday, and backs pro-choice legislation.
“In the code of canon law, in the canonical tradition, it’s been the case that heads of state are only judged by the pope himself … that’s a principle that’s in procedural law,” Professor Martens told a Religion Media Centre press briefing.
Catholic teaching makes clear that anyone who has committed a grave sin should not receive communion unless they have been to confession. Canon law also states that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” are to be barred from communion, with certain bishops arguing that this means pro-choice politicians need to be barred from the communion rail.
Although the bishops are preparing document on communion, it is not clear what impact, if any, it will have on Biden given that church law also states that this matter is the responsibility of the bishop in the diocese where he lives. The Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, has said he will not refuse Biden communion. The US bishops’ conference has also stressed that “there will be no national policy on withholding communion from politicians”.
Martens argued that “dialogue is always the best way” for church leaders when faced with someone not in agreement with Catholic teaching. He also pointed out that a priest or minister has no way of knowing if a person coming forward for communion has been to confession. For many Catholics, it’s very hard to judge who is worthy to receive communion.
Pope Francis has also implicitly distanced himself from any attempts to use the sacrament as a sanction by saying the eucharist is “not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners”.
Both Martens and another panellist at the briefing, Professor Massimo Faggioli, saw the move to bar politicians from communion as evidence of “sectarian” thinking inside the Catholic Church. Martens wondered if parts of US Catholicism were becoming like “a Protestant sect with Catholic sauce on top of it? It’s a question that I put out there.”
Professor Faggioli, a church historian at Villanova University, Pennsylvania, and author of Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, said he detected the desire by some to become a “smaller, purer” church. But he said such a move was not an idea found in the traditional body of Catholic thinking but instead “hyper-modernist,” and anti-traditional. Although a smaller church might be on the cards it would not, he stressed, be “pure” pointing out that many see the US Bishops’ conference as “the Republican Party at prayer”.
Professor Susannah Cornwall from Exeter University, a theologian whose research has focused on sexuality and gender, said the debate signalled the “readjustments of power” that were going on for the Christian churches and the differences “in terms of the power and moral authority” of what the clergy had in the past and what they have now.
The credibility of Catholic leadership in the US has been severely damaged by the clerical sexual abuse scandals while membership has declined in the past two decades. Those identifying with no religion, the so-called “nones”, are on the rise.
Matthew Bunson, the executive editor and Washington bureau chief for EWTN News, pointed out that bishops’ document on communion was also driven by a “lack of belief in the real presence of the eucharist”, the Catholic teaching that during mass Christ becomes truly present in the form of bread and wine. EWTN is a Catholic media conglomerate and the largest religious media network in the world. It has often taken a pro-Republican, and pro-Trump editorial line.
Mr Bunson said: “Joe Biden, for a lot of bishops, is emblematic of what they see is a much wider problem in the United States, in terms of the real belief, but also a loss of a sense of understanding of the eucharist and what it means to be worthy to receive the eucharist.”
Biden presented “unique challenges to American Catholicism and in some ways to global Catholicism” because he “calls himself a devout Catholic” and “yet he very clearly holds positions not exclusive to abortion, but especially abortion, that are in direct contradiction to the teachings of the church”.
Steve Schneck, who is executive director of the Franciscan Action Network in Washington DC and who was national co-chairman of Catholics for Biden, said any effort to set down communion restrictions along the lines set out by the US bishops would “be universally interpreted as using the eucharist for a political purpose”. He added that the outcome would be to “further polarise American Catholics into warring political camps”.
Schneck said President Biden, who had spoken often about the importance of his faith, “feels very hurt” by what has happened.
“I think this is an effort to shame the president and I have no doubt that this must be very, very disturbing to the president,” he added.
Professor Cornwall argued that President Biden was an unusual figure in public life. “[He is an] example of some who is able to hold together a devout Catholic faith, as we’ve heard, with socially progressive political commitments to sex and gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and access to reproductive healthcare, for example,” she said.
“President Biden has been very clear that his personal belief is that life begins at conception. Nonetheless, he has said that on this, he doesn’t want to impose his fate on others.”
A document on communion will be drafted in the coming months, and the bishops will reconvene to discuss it in November.
View this RMC online briefing here