John Gehring on Why Communion Should Be Personal, Not Political

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a town hall in Florence, South Carolina, on Oct. 26, 2019. A Catholic priest in South Carolina denied Communion to Biden over the weekend, a decision purportedly made over the former vice president’s stance on abortion. It illustrates the challenge facing presidential candidates as they share their faith on the trail: How to balance the private and deeply personal values of their religions with a public campaign schedule that pushes them to authentically choose a side in polarizing moral debates? (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

Joe Biden is a proud Catholic. He carries a rosary to remember his late son Beau, and as recent headlines show, he attends Mass even during a grueling campaign. But when the former vice president presented himself for Communion at St. Anthony Catholic Church in South Carolina on Sunday (Oct. 27), a priest denied him the sacrament. The pastor then discussed the moment with a reporter. “Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching,” the pastor, the Rev. Robert E. Morey, explained in an email to the Florence News.

You don’t have to be a Christian, a Democrat — or even agree with Biden’s position that the government shouldn’t criminalize abortion — to recognize that this crass politicization of a holy sacrament is deeply problematic.

Any priest who denies a person this radical encounter with unconditional love and mercy typically would do so only as an extreme last resort, likely after several private meetings where the pastor and his congregant spoke about formed consciences, grace and reconciliation. There is no evidence any of that happened in this situation. While the priest surely convinced himself he was acting in Biden’s best spiritual interest, this form of pastoral malpractice does immeasurable damage to individuals, institutions and faith communities.

For Catholics, the Eucharist is not a symbol or a statement, but the literal body of Christ, what the catechism describes as “the source and summit” of Christian life. In words that should give comfort to all of us who feel unworthy of presenting ourselves before God, Pope Francis reminds us that Communion is not a “prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Making this situation worse, the priest wasn’t going rogue, but, according to a report by Catholic News Agency, was following a diocesan decree from 2004 signed jointly by the bishops of Atlanta, Charleston and Charlotte that states Catholic public officials who support abortion rights should not be allowed to receive Communion.

In contrast, Biden’s hometown diocese issued a statement noting that Bishop Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Delaware, has “consistently refrained from politicizing the Eucharist, and will continue to do so.” Malooly underscored that point in 2008 when he said he would “get a lot more mileage out of a conversation trying to change the mind and heart than I would out of a public confrontation.”

If that sounds like special treatment, consider that St. John Paul II, a hero for a generation of conservative Catholics and a revered figure in the anti-abortion movement, gave Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians during his lengthy pontificate, including to Rome’s mayor, Francesco Rutelli, a high-profile Catholic who fought for more liberal abortion laws.

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Source: Religion News Service