Last week the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops took a step toward publicly humiliating President Biden by denying him Holy Communion. This action is short-sighted, mean-spirited, and stupid, which means it’s completely on brand for the USCCB.
It’s no secret that the deeply misogynistic Roman Catholic Church is opposed to abortion. I was raised Catholic and had the full anti-abortion indoctrination of grotesque photos of purportedly aborted fetuses (who knows if any of that stuff was real or fake—propagandists use whatever they have available to push their message).
After I was free of parochial education, I started thinking for myself. As an adult, I saw the issue of abortion—and pregnancy—differently than I did as a teenager. I thought about what decision I would make if I found myself pregnant. And I had empathy for women who had to make that decision.
(I know that the anti-choice people love to yell “ADOPTION!!” when discussing abortion, but the reality is that many women just cannot afford to carry a child to term. In addition to the medical appointments, being pregnant still can get a woman fired, or cost her a promotion. If there are complications, it may require her taking unpaid leave.)
I don’t know what Joe Biden thinks deep in his heart about abortion. But I do know that as a politician he is supposed to represent the people who elected him. The Pew Forum says that 55% of people in Delaware support abortion being legal in all or most cases. And Pew also says that 59% of Americans support abortion being legal in all or most cases. And given the makeup of the electorate who elected him, there is a clear mandate for him to support women’s reproductive rights. That’s his job.
It’s ironic that the big fear about JFK’s Catholicism was that he’d be controlled by Rome. And now we have a bunch of Catholic bishops trying to act as if they were Rome to control Biden. This crazy plan might have worked, except that the Vatican has already weighed in on this issue and told the USCCB to back off.
In the end, the USCCB won’t explicitly say that pro-choice politicians must be denied Holy Communion. That’s not how Pharisees work. They’re cowards who hide behind a wall of words which they then twist to suit their purposes.
Naturally the chance to flaunt misogyny under the guise of morality attracts a lot of fellow travelers, and conservative Catholics are out there making the most of it. And they’re being cowards about any challenges to their obvious hypocrisy:
Great to hear from you, Karen! Let me propose that you and I publicly debate the question. Let's see if I can meet your challenges and if you can meet mine. I'm sure it would be illuminating. @RyanTAnd would EPPC be willing to host a debate between Karen and me in Washington, DC?
— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) June 19, 2021
Karen Tumulty is right—there is a monomaniacal focus on abortion, but no public shaming for Catholic politicians who gleefully support the death penalty, and the Vatican has been very clear about the stance of the RCC on that issue. (Also on display in that exchange—the typical shift to the demand of a public debate when a conservative “thinker” has been shown to be intellectually naked. Pharisees gonna Pharisee.)
I could see some kind of point to all of this if the result of the USCCB’s actions would make US Catholics happy. But it’s not. In fact, it’s making some on-the-fence Catholics reconsider their membership in the church. (h/t, our own Fearless Leader)
Father Edward Beck spoke to CNN on Sunday to explain that the idea by Catholic bishops to punish pro-choice Democrats isn’t going over very well with people who are for or against a woman’s right to choose.
“I had mass this morning, a few of them actually, and unsolicited, I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and were really upset about this,” said Father Beck. “I mean, across the political spectrum. And basically what they were saying was, you had a former president who checked none of the ‘life issue’ boxes for the Catholic church except that he said he would appoint Supreme Court justices that could overturn Roe v. Wade. And that’s all that seemed to matter.”
“And then you have Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic, who is pro-choice, although he says he’s personally opposed to abortion, and people are talking about denying him communion,” Father Beck continued. “The reception of communion — people see it as really based in hypocrisy. I can’t tell you, some said this is the final straw for them. If the bishops go ahead with that, that’s it for them.”
Some of you might be wondering why this is such a big deal, apart from the political power play on the part of the USCCB. Why people would consider leaving the RCC over someone not being able to eat a plain, dry wafer (maybe less so if your communion experience is with a parish that uses homemade bread as communion)? And this is where we depart from the political for the metaphysical.
If you are a believer, and especially if your denomination offers weekly—or daily—Eucharists, the communal act of reception as a congregation is a powerful spiritual experience. Ritual creates mystery, and mystery creates transcendence (if not transubstantiation). The communion bread and the communal cup are outward marks of a spiritual community. They have deep meaning to those who are part of it.
Catholicism doesn’t have an open table at communion. Unless you are a baptized Catholic, you are not permitted to take communion. When I was Catholic, this made a lot of sense to me (of course it did—that’s how propaganda works). I am now an Episcopalian and my parish has an open table. Everyone is welcome. But when I visit my parents and go to church with them, the presiding priest makes it quite clear that non-Catholics are not welcome at the table. Even though I don’t necessarily take communion every week in my home parish, being told that bluntly that you are not welcome hurts every time.
There are big theological issues with denying people communion over their political beliefs, but the current MAGA Catholic bishops don’t care. There are canonical issues too, namely that that decision about denying communion resides with individual bishops in that particular diocese, and not with these conferences of bishops. And I think there are constitutional issues with it that make it legal to revoke the RCC’s tax-free status here in the US.
Of course the USCCB knows all of that and is acting very deliberately here. They are targeting women and those who champion women’s rights. They are punishing people for standing up for the rights of others. They are morally, theologically, and constitutionally wrong in doing so. They should be ashamed of themselves, and American Catholics should hold them responsible if they go through with this by leaving the RCC.
I’ll let The Reverend Nadia Boltz-Weber, one of the best preachers out there, have the last word:
If we are to be judged for having gotten this wrong, let it be that we sat more at the table than fewer.
Because it’s not our table.