US President Joe Biden has lit a firestorm of controversy among Catholics owing to his outspoken support of abortion. In particular, there is his executive order revoking the Mexico City Policy, which disallowed federal funding for abortion activities in other countries, his support for revoking the Hyde Amendment, which disallows funding for abortion in the US, and his apparent support for codifying the Roe vs Wade decision into federal law.
The president, perhaps the most visible person on the planet, and a role model for millions of children, openly opposes a fundamental moral position of the Catholic Church, his church.
There are several issues involved and several pertinent canon laws of the Catholic Church. It is not the intention here to get into theological issues, nor to take a position on Catholic legal or procedural issues, but rather to give a brief exposition of the problem as it pertains to the president receiving Holy Communion, and relevance to the public interest.
The basic issue is whether or not a politician (or anyone else) openly supporting and promoting abortion can receive Holy Communion. According to Catholic doctrine, a person must be in the state of grace to receive Holy Communion. If one is aware of having committed a grave sin, then he or she must first participate in the sacrament of Resolution (by confessing the sin) before receiving the Eucharist.
Regarding abortion, the Apraedcida Document, approved by Pope Benedict XVI and affirmed by Pope Francis, states,
“We hope that legislators [and] heads of government … will defend and protect [the dignity of human life] from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia; that is their responsibility….
“We must adhere to ‘eucharistic coherence,’ that is, be conscious that they cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals.”
Cardinal Raymond Burke, a canon lawyer and formerly prefect of the Catholic Church’s highest court, has applied this dictum to Joe Biden (prior to his election):
“[He] has not only been actively supporting procured abortion in our country but has announced publicly in his campaign that he intends to make the practice of procured abortion available to everyone in the widest possible form and to repeal the restrictions on this practice which have been put in place.
“So, first of all, I would tell him not to approach Holy Communion out of charity toward him, because that would be a sacrilege, and a danger to the salvation of his own soul.”
Much of the debate among the Catholic bishops, priests, and laity has been whether or not President Biden should be denied Holy Communion by his bishop. This debate centers on Canon Law 915:
“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.”
Enforcement is the issue here. The US bishops have agreed that the bishop in whose diocese the person wishes to present himself for Holy Communion makes the decision, following dialogue in which he explains to the person that he must go through reconciliation prior to receiving Communion.
There is no limit on this dialogue, so in effect the bishop never has to act. While this is an important and contentious topic, we will not pursue it here because it is a question for the Catholic Church, not the general public.
The issue relevant to the public is scandal. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
“Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.”
Cardinal Burke calls Joe Biden to task for giving scandal:
“He should not approach to receive Holy Communion because he gives scandal to everyone. Because if someone says ‘well, I’m a devout Catholic’ and at the same time is promoting abortion, it gives the impression to others that it’s acceptable for a Catholic to be in favor of abortion and of course it’s absolutely not acceptable.”
We take the president at his word: He is a Catholic. Indeed, it would be foolish to believe otherwise. He has been a practicing Catholic his whole life, regularly attends Mass, and has often let his faith be his guide. As a Catholic, he, ipso facto, accepts church moral teaching as in Canon Law and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
As a graduate of Archmere Academy, a private Catholic school, he surely understands that abortion is a grave sin, and that as a Catholic he is promoting gave sin and giving scandal by making it appear that such sin does not remove one from the state of grace.
Many people find abortion morally acceptable. But these are not Catholics. Part of being a Catholic is accepting Catholic moral teaching. You may defy the teaching. You may sin grievously (as do all human beings), but you are always welcome to repent. That is why the Catholic Church has reconciliation in confession.
The issue is not solely whether President Biden supports abortion. Were he of a different faith, one in which abortion is acceptable, then there would be no scandal. Were he a leftist, guided by the principle that there is no categorical moral law, that morality is malleable, interpreted by the vanguard, imposed upon everyone, and not bound by consistency, logic, or facts, then there could be no scandal.
Even as a Catholic, if the president were to execute the law while clearly stating his opposition to it, he could claim that he was upholding his oath of office. No doubt some would argue that he should refuse to enforce laws he knows to be gravely immoral, but such a policy would be impractical in an open society.
In this instance, he need only enforce the law while stating his opposition, and do his best to prevent new laws supporting abortion. There would be no scandal because he would be making it clear that Catholics should not support abortion.
This is not a church-state issue. The president would be faithfully performing his duties to the state while at the same time stating his position on the law. Some might say that he should not let his religion affect his position, but that would be absurd because his moral positions are intrinsic to his faith. Morality has many origins. Religion is one of those origins.
The president needs to address the issue of scandal. He cannot claim it to be a personal matter because his actions affect tens of millions of people. It is not a matter between himself and his bishop, as it might be if he were a carpenter or an auto mechanic, in which case there would be no scandal.
The president has chosen to be a public figure, the most public of all. It is in his publicness that scandal arises, which is a very different matter than simply being in favor of abortion.
President Biden is currently at the center of the controversy because he is the president; however, all Catholic politicians confront the possibility of scandal, and each must treat it in the public realm, not in the private, for it does not exist there.