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Will US Catholic bishops go for the sacramental jugular?

Joe Biden may be told he can no longer accept Holy Communion if he continues advocating for abortion

Artillery Row

There’s a great line in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, his 1940 novel about a renegade alcoholic Catholic priest in Mexico during the 1930s, that gets at the significance of receiving Holy Communion. An act which, understandably, can look ridiculous to non-Catholics observing grown adults earnestly queuing during mass to have a wafer popped into their mouths.

“It doesn’t matter so much my being a coward — and all the rest,” the captured and nameless “whisky priest” tells a sympathetic lieutenant with the Red Shirts that have outlawed the Catholic faith, as he awaits his execution. “I can put God into a man’s mouth just the same.”

When Catholics receive Communion, they partake in one of the Church’s most profound sacraments, whereby through the mystery of transubstantiation the small round wafer that the whiskey priest and all Catholic priests place into the mouths of the faithful becomes the actual body of Christ, while the wine drunk from the accompanying chalice becomes His actual blood.

Also known as the Blessed Sacrament, it’s the cornerstone of the Catholic mass — and a re-enactment of the Last Supper, the final meal that Jesus Christ shared with his disciples before his crucifixion — and throughout history, Church authorities have withdrawn the right to receive Communion due to transgressions against Church doctrine. Catholic divorcees who have attempted to remarry without first obtaining an annulment — a judgement from the Church that the first attempt at marriage was in fact invalid — are not permitted to receive Communion.

Abortion is highly divisive in America and, unlike in the UK, people openly speak out about it

A similar injunction may be imposed on Joe Biden, the fist Catholic president in office for 60 years since John F. Kennedy, and who is not shy about wielding his Catholic credentials, due to his support for abortion at odds with the Catholic Church’s strict anti-abortion stance. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) hold their next national meeting in June and are considering a document to clarify the Church’s stance on whether you can receive Communion if you persist in public advocacy of abortion rights. It’s a conundrum that has vexed bishops for decades in the face of modern society’s strident pro-abortion stance — there have been an estimated 60 million abortions in the US since 1973’s Roe v. Wade ruling by the Supreme Court — and now has been brought to a head through Joe Biden’s ascension to the land’s highest political office.

Last November, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the USCCB’s president, decided to form a working group to address the “complex and difficult situation” posed by Biden’s stances on abortion and other issues — such as contraception, marriage and gender — that differ from official Church teaching. The group proposed drafting a document addressing the issue of Communion. The task was assigned to the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine, which has since had plenty to think on in regard to Biden.

One of the president’s first Tweets, on 22 January, following his inauguration, addressed the issue of the US Constitution protecting a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose an abortion without excessive government restriction: “As we mark the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, now is the time to rededicate ourselves to the work ahead. From codifying Roe to eliminating maternal and infant health disparities, our Administration is committed to ensuring everyone has access to the health care they need.”

There followed three measures from the administration in mid-April that further rattled Catholic bishops. Restrictions on federal funding for research involving human foetal tissue were lifted. A Trump administration policy barring organisations such as Planned Parenthood from receiving federal family planning grants if they refer women for abortions was rescinded. And the need for women wanting an abortion to visit a doctor’s office or clinic was waived due to the Covid-19 pandemic, thereby facilitating abortion pills via telemedicine and mail delivery. In the UK, a similar thing happened with the most significant change to abortion legislation since the 1967 Abortion Act slipping through largely unnoticed, ushering in home abortions, while media attention focused on the start of lockdown measures.

“Because President Biden is Catholic, it presents a unique problem for us,” Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, recently told the Associated Press. A permissive stance on abortion from any public figure constitutes “a grave moral evil,” Naumann explained, hence it is necessary to publicly rebuke Biden on the issue. “It can create confusion,” Naumann added. “How can he say he’s a devout Catholic and he’s doing these things that are contrary to the church’s teaching?”

In a previous article for The Critic about how the pilgrimage site of Fatima in Portugal represents Catholicism at its most bonkers and prescient, I discussed how traditional Catholic social teaching might become more front and centre in American politics — and thereby more front and centre for all of us given America’s ideological lead — because of the obvious tension between the new president being a church-going Catholic and the progressive policies of his administration, and if the Church authorities decided to push back and speak out.

To take on the American president is a bold move by the bishops

It’s not just Biden who could be affected by the bishops’ assertive response. Nancy Pelosi, the first woman in US history to serve as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, is vocal about the importance of her Catholic faith while roundly criticised by many American Catholics for not speaking out against abortion. Abortion is highly divisive in America and, unlike in the UK, people openly speak out about it. According to recent polls, between 55 to 61 per cent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a view reflected even among Catholics. But that still leaves a significant proportion of the population who feel abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

“Politicians face challenges in aiming at the common good — there can be reasonable disagreements about what will actually promote the common good, and there are many different and competing areas of policy in which the common good can be pursued,” says David Cloutier, a theology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

He notes that though Church teaching clearly maintains that Catholic politicians should not “check their faith at the door”, there isn’t a corresponding expectation that they somehow impose Catholic doctrine or teaching in an absolute manner.

“Between these extremes, there is much room for one’s faith to shape one’s political decisions,” Cloutier says, while adding a crucial caveat. “Still, in all cases, politicians must be clear about the moral principles involved, even if there is some range of policy choices. Denying the basic human dignity of an unborn child is always unacceptable.”

To take on the American president is a bold move by the bishops, to say the least, especially coming on the back of Catholic Church authorities, especially in the US, being up to their necks in covering up child sex abuse for decades. In the context of the Communion debate, this furnishes critics of the Catholic Church with the obvious rejoinder that bishops would do better focusing less on the president and more on ensuring their priests don’t bugger young children, as one Twitter user put it.

But in stark contrast to religious authorities in the UK — both those of the Catholic and Anglican churches, who rolled over during Covid-19 and lockdowns, capitulating to every whim of draconian governmental policy — it appears America’s bishops have every intention of standing up to the president.

At the June conference, bishops will vote on whether the committee should continue working on the document — with a two-thirds majority needed — to facilitate an eventual public release. That looks more than likely, according to the Associated Press, as even bishops critical of the initiative — arguing the USCCB’s emphasis on abortion will undermine its ability to find common ground with Biden on issues Pope Francis has exhorted such as climate change, immigration and inequality — predict overwhelming approval for the move.

Cloutier notes how St. Thomas Aquinas accepted that civil laws cannot perfectly be framed to reject all evils, but only the most damaging evils. This tradition, he explains, has developed an understanding of acceptable forms of “cooperation with evil” that can be tolerated for proportionately good reasons.

“What the Catholic politician must avoid is what is termed ‘formal cooperation with evil,’ wherein one’s action shares the sinful intent of others, or does not make sufficiently clear that one is tolerating an evil rather than endorsing a good,” Cloutier says. “Moreover, even apart from formal cooperation, one must consider how socially damaging a particular permissive law might be.”

The continual tussle between good and evil in the human conscience and heart, as well as between individual freedom and the overbearing totalitarian state, was at the core of Greene’s The Power and The Glory.

“The world was in her heart already, like the small spot of decay in a fruit,” Greene says.

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