Ethics & Public Policy Center

Biden and the Bishops

Published in The Catholic Thing on December 10, 2020


As a father, I am responsible for the moral formation of several small people, each with a strong inclination toward tyranny, or at least toward anarchy. The execution of these duties has, over the years, made me more circumspect in my judgments about how others ought to discipline their own broods.

Knowing how to discipline a child in a way that will not only keep peace in the household, but will also serve the growth and maturation of the child in question, is not easy. Sometimes a child responds best to mercy and gentleness; sometimes a child needs to have the proverbial book thrown at him. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on the child. Navigating the mean between legalism and laxity requires prudence, and not a little humility.

And love, as in all things, is the surest guide.

I mention all this as a prelude to the question of whether pro-choice politicians like Joe Biden ought to be admitted to Communion. Russell Shaw wrote ably on this question last week. I don’t want to duplicate his efforts except to recommend them to you.

Since then, Archbishop Chaput has weighed in against Communion for Biden. The USCCB has already convened an ad hoc committee to consider the matter. Cardinal Gregory, as archbishop here in Washington, DC., has indicated that he will maintain the pastoral practice that was in place during Mr. Biden’s previous tenure as Vice-President: Biden will not be denied Communion.

Such a pastoral decision is Cardinal Gregory’s prerogative. We ought to assume that it is made out of solicitude for both the communicant in question and for the good of local Church: politicized fights over the reception of the Sacraments being less than conducive to a sense of unity and healing in a Church still smarting from the McCarrick Affair and the resignation of Cardinal Wuerl.

And, of course, there are a great many Catholics – for whom our bishops are also responsible – who see rank hypocrisy in bishops exercising judgment on politicians when the bishops’ own collective record on handling the sexual abuse crisis is so poor. Prudence demands that we acknowledge that exercise of legal authority is closely tied to moral authority, and those with too little of the latter ought to be wary of giving the appearance of being too eager to exercise the former.

Setting aside the particulars of the Biden case, pastors who act with great solicitude for the sake of one sinner can sometimes give short shrift to those who have been harmed by the sinner in question, and to the ecclesial community as a whole. (There is even a sort of parallel here to the way certain bishops’ responses to abusive priests showed admirable solicitude for the sinner, but not nearly enough concern for those who suffered direct harm from their crimes or for the good of the community as a whole.)

Nowhere is the individualist strain in American Catholicism more manifest than in the ubiquitous belief that reception of the Holy Eucharist is a private matter between me and God. The reception of Communion is a deeply personal matter, but it is a fundamentally ecclesial act, not a private one. This fact underlies all the ongoing debates about Catholic politicians and Communion. And it explains why the arguments long pre-date the election of Joe Biden and will almost certainly continue after he has left office.

Moreover, it is not too hard to see why treating ecclesial acts through the lens of private action has implications far beyond sacramental discipline.

The Church speaks often and consistently about the idea of social or structural sin. As I wrote earlier this year, “[T]he notion of collective responsibility – of ‘social sin,’ to use a much-maligned phrase – ought not to be foreign to anyone familiar with Scripture. God judges us as individuals, yes, but also as members of peoples, assigning guilt and judging grievance both personally and corporately.”

But here in the US, the Church’s teaching on “social sin” is often (wrongly) disregarded as a Leftist political racket. Why? One reason is that, for decades, Catholic politicians have defended and expanded the abortion license and abortion subsidies, both at home and abroad, with virtual impunity. Meanwhile, your average layman or woman in the pew is expected to feel personally responsible for a whole host of structural issues – from climate change, to racism, to the resettlement of refugees – that are far beyond their direct control.

The distinct impression is that there is one set of expectations and standards for everyday Catholics, and another for well-connected, influential Catholics: that our faith ought to have consequences for our politics, but our politics have no consequences on our faith. If the bishops are serious about the urgency of addressing social sin, then why the manifest willingness to tolerate – without any ecclesial consequences – direct, unambiguous support for the expansion of a systemic injustice (abortion) that costs millions and millions of lives?

If the bishops can’t rouse themselves to act as if direct support for such a grave evil has ecclesial consequences, why would anyone take seriously their purported urgency on matters over which individual Catholics have far, far less influence? The pastoral challenge here goes far beyond Communion and abortion. It extends to the credibility of the Church’s public witness.

As I’ve said many times before: nothing is more antithetical to a consistent ethic of life – nothing rends the “seamless garment” more – than support for the industrial-scale eradication of innocent lives through abortion. This is precisely why the bishops have stated that abortion is their preeminent political concern. And it is precisely why the bishops have convened an ad hoc committed to coordinate their response to the challenges posed by a pro-choice Catholic president.

Good men will disagree on the course of action that best serves the good of the Church and the good of souls. I do not envy the bishops their task. Pray for our bishops, and for the Church.

© 2020 The Catholic Thing.

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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