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Denying Biden Communion

June 23, 2021 (1,225 words)

In what made headlines on every media platform, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) overwhelming approved new guidelines for receiving the Eucharist during Mass. If rigorously enforced these guidelines would deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians like President Joe Biden.

The vote was 73 percent in favor with 24 percent opposed, and is being described as a dramatic show of force on the part of the conservative Catholic movement in this country. It’s also being labeled as further evidence of a dramatic ideological rift with Rome, which is generally viewed as tilting more than a little left these days.

Hints of such a rift make for juicy click-bait, but don’t do justice to the facts. The real story has more layers, more nuance, and is not so easily categorized. For one thing, Pope Francis may indeed be on record as wanting to expand the cultural conversation on familiar hot-button topics like same-sex marriage and artificial contraception. But his opposition to legalized abortion has never been in doubt.

Rather than grapple with complexity, though, it’s much easier for reporters and consumers of news to caste everything as an easy-to-digest tale of good guys versus bad guys – of liberals versus conservatives. Contrary to how the story is being reported, this latest dust-up is not an indicator of a deepening disagreement between a so-called liberal Vatican and a burgeoning conservative Catholic movement here in the States. It is, however, another example of widespread confusion on the part of American Catholics – clergy and lay persons, alike – as to what Catholic social teaching is, and how best to implement that teaching in a liberal democracy founded on pluralism.

A complicated subject, to be sure, and one not given to a simplistic choosing up of sides. As if to cleanse our national palette of its partisan tendencies, Francis has not been shy about taking on what he describes with disdain as the rising conservatism in the United States. He openly clashed with the recently-deposed Republican administration over nothing less than what it means to be a true Christian. He repeatedly challenged that administration’s approach to persistent poverty, immigration reform, and climate change.

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In case you are wondering, I am 100 percent in favor of denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. My only question for the USCCB is, what took you guys so long? Our good bishops should have pulled the trigger on this decades ago, back when Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) as Governor of New York (1983-1994) first rolled out the “personally opposed, but” defense of his public support for abortion.

That being said, I’d like to note the active participation of conservative Catholics in our political process should not begin and end with this moral sanction – as gratifying as that sanction may feel in the moment.

Unfortunately, conservative Catholics have made the mistake of dismissing an entire policy platform because it extends to include support for a woman’s right to choose and marriage equality. Their otherwise admirable righteousness prevents them from comprehending the obvious: such support does not constitute a mandate. No one is being forced into having an abortion, or told to marry someone of their own gender.

Equally unfortunate, conservative Catholics have simultaneously embraced an opposing policy platform that runs directly counter to Catholic social teaching as it pertains to economic behavior. They have been seduced by soothing pro-life rhetoric, even though the trickle-down fiscal policies that define this platform erode respect for life.

(In dismissing my concerns over economic policy, conservative Catholic friends are quick to cite Donald Trump as the most pro-life President in history. To which I say, go right ahead, revel in the conservative appointments to the federal bench made during his term. And the three – count ‘em, three – conservative appointees to the Supreme Court. But what about Trump‘s unprecedented tax cut for the wealthiest Americans that made even Warren Buffett blush? At this point the long-awaited power-play repeal of Roe v. Wade, now to be instigated by these newly-minted Republican judicial appointments, will just start a civil war. Especially among the female population who would like to bring a child into this world, but don’t have the financial wherewithal to do so.)

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Lest you get the wrong impression, it’s not just conservative Catholics and their automatic support for Republicans that bothers me. I take issue with groups like “Catholics for Biden,” as well. It’s not enough for such groups to tout a Democrat’s praiseworthy initiatives in the area of economic justice, or immigration reform, or climate change, while calmly stating “of course, the Church can never endorse support of abortion,” etc.

No, there has to be more to your objection. If you are going to support a pro-choice Democrat because of his/her social justice agenda – which I encourage, by the way – you must be strenuous in your disapproval of that politician’s support of abortion and gay marriage. Groups like “Catholics for Biden’ are just way too polite in letting these politicians off the hook when it comes to sexual morality.

This, of course, is the very same thing conservatives are doing with their pro-life Republican champions – letting them off the hook for their laissez-faire answer to everything economic. Our pro-life Catholic Voter Guides, along with the 73 percent of American bishops who just voted to deny President Biden communion, insist there can be nothing of value in the Biden administration’s economic agenda. They claim by supporting abortion it fails to exhibit a requisite respect for life. But this is painting with too broad a brush, and displays a worrisome lack of discernment.

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In a liberal democracy founded on pluralism we are never going to have the chance to vote for a politician who represents Catholic teaching across the board. So why have conservatives turned our elections into these dire, either/or choices centered on political support for abortion and gay marriage? Better they should direct their consternation at our founding doctrine of individual liberty in pursuit of one’s own definition of happiness. Since that’s the ideological wellspring of both legal abortion and gay marriage. It just took a couple hundred years to play out.

Let’s admit the whole thing is a mess, in the sense that figuring out how to implement Catholic social teaching in a pluralist democracy is a nut we American Catholics are still trying to crack. And things have only gotten messier since the 1973 passage of Roe v. Wade. That’s when the divide-and-conquer strategy was put into play to muffle Catholic influence. We have been reduced to cheerleaders for trickle-down economics on the one hand, or enablers of the libertines on the other.

So by all means, my dear bishops, move forward with your principled stand on denying Holy Communion to pro-choice politicians. This will eliminate the confusion we are always being told rank-and-file Catholics feel when people like President Biden profess as Catholics, yet also profess support for abortion.

Just don’t stop there, thinking your work to implement all aspects of Church teaching in the political realm is complete. Come up with a way to call out Republicans for the collateral damage their fiscal policy creates, without jeopardizing your tax-exempt status in the process. But call it out, you must. Economics is morality in action, in the public arena. It’s not merely a matter of prudential judgment.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
June 23, 2021

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