As President-elect Joe Biden prepares his government, the bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States face a new challenge: a Catholic president who will publicly oppose his Church on fundamental moral issues—including life, marriage and family, and religious liberty.
Biden is neither the first Catholic president, nor the first one to disagree with the Church on policy. But in President John F. Kennedy’s day, the issues were categorically different. Kennedy disagreed with bishops on matters that were open to prudential judgement. Biden, on the other hand, has broken with the Church on issues that are non-negotiable and foundational. This is a crisis for the common good of our society, and a particular crisis for the bishops, who have a prophetic mission to lead the faithful to the truth of the human person.
During my years serving the bishops as the executive director of government relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), I always presented the political situation as one of both opportunities and challenges. This was true during the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, and it is true today. The incoming Biden administration presents real and significant opportunities. There is an opportunity, for instance, for the Church to weigh in on issues such as immigration, health care, and care for the poor. But the challenges are just as real and significant.
For decades the U.S. bishops have positioned themselves as non-partisan voices on behalf of issues that span the left-right political spectrum. This was appropriate. The bishops themselves could stand at a distance from the political process while speaking to political questions. But President-elect Biden changes this comfortable dynamic for the bishops. They can no longer relate to the president as only a head of state. Biden is both their president and a member of their congregation, and the bishops will need to navigate that.
For many people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, President Biden will be a model of what it means to profess the Catholic faith. But he will profess one thing while governing very differently. The Church will soon have a man in the Oval Office who identifies as Catholic, but undermines the prophetic work of the Church and her call to witness the truth and love of Jesus Christ.
The bishops’ crisis in this situation is not a political crisis. It is a crisis of authority, a crisis of identity, and a crisis of faith. Biden’s public witness will force questions that most bishops would prefer to avoid: Questions about how seriously they hold the uncomfortable, but foundational, truths of their own creed. Can a Catholic president, even one sincere in his faith, dismiss the authority of the Church and remain in good standing? Does the Church understand herself to be the doorway to salvation and take the salvation of souls seriously? Does the Church still call the faithful to repentance for the good of their souls and the souls of others?
Many will argue that if the bishops weigh in now on matters of faith related to President Biden—particularly the question of Communion—they will politicize the faith. Some bishops themselves have argued this. They have a point: Why should the bishops stand up now when for decades they have allowed Catholic politicians to undermine the right to life and other fundamental rights? Self-identified Catholics in Congress have promoted abortion as a good for at least two decades and yet the bishops have done almost nothing to hold them accountable or call them to repent.
In 2004, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued guidance for U.S. bishops regarding how to handle the matter of Holy Communion for pro-choice Catholic presidential candidates such as John Kerry. The Holy See made it clear that this is a grave pastoral matter, concerning the care of souls. The guidance included the following passages:
5. Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.
6. When “these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,” and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it” (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts Declaration “Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics” , nos. 3-4). This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.
At the time, then-Cardinal McCarrick (now a defrocked priest) and Cardinal Wilton Gregory chose to withhold this guidance from the full body of bishops. Cardinal Gregory said last month that he has not changed his position. His view on the matter will again set policy for the body of bishops, it seems.
But today, all U.S. bishops know what guidance the Holy See provided on this issue. Does that guidance still pertain? While the Holy See could provide new guidance for Biden if it wished to, it has not. It would be false, therefore, for any bishop to suggest that withholding Communion from a politician constitutes politicizing the sacraments. The Holy See did not think so in 2004 and has not said otherwise since.
The U.S. bishops have a new opportunity to do what they should have done sixteen years ago and provide clear guidance regarding the Church’s teaching on how to receive Communion worthily, and on the dignity and seriousness of the moral life. By doing this now, they would clarify to their flock what the faith is—which is to say, how to save one’s soul and how to help others get to heaven. This is not a political matter. It is a pastoral matter of the greatest significance. Political opportunities come and go; souls do not.
Jayd Henricks is former executive director of government relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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