BY MALVINA BARBIERI
Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic, was denied communion at a South Carolina church last month over his political support for abortion rights. I believe this was an illegitimate and abusive exercise of authority for three reasons – moral, canonical and pastoral.
First, moral, one must know why and to what degree Vice President Biden supports abortion rights. In fact, on a personal level, Biden agrees with the Church and is against abortion, while being unwilling to impose his personal belief on others who do not share his faith or moral convictions. The most important distinction to have in mind, when it comes to evaluating cooperation with evil, is the distinction between formal and material cooperation. Formal cooperation is always wrong, while material cooperation might be wrong if a person does not have a sufficient reason to cooperate. If said cooperation is formal, if one directly intend the evil act, it is wrong. In order for it to be formal cooperation, Biden must directly will the abortions.
Bernard Häring defines the fundamental categories of cooperation. Formal cooperation is “every cooperation in the sin of another which by its inner purpose (finis operis) or deliberate intent (finis operantis) is characterized as complicity in the sin of another.” Alphonsus Ligouri states, “In ‘merely material cooperation’ the cooperator’s act is good or indifferent and contributes to the other’s sin neither in itself nor by the cooperator’s intent, but solely through being misappropriated by the principal agent.” Biden himself did not participate in an abortion and, moreover, the priest cannot know the reasons why he might support it politically. The priest is imposing a penalty for what may or may not be a sin for which Biden is morally culpable.
There are many factors at work here. To cut to the chase, the Iraq war was called “unjust” and condemned by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. However, no one has suggested that we excommunicate all the Catholic politicians who voted for it. The politicians who voted for it may have had sufficient reason to do so, even if the act remained objectively disordered. In any event, the context within which to discuss such a matter, with Catholics a least, is within the confessional and in counseling. The matter of abortion should not be used as political football, anymore than a Catholic preacher should say from the pulpit that one cannot vote for President Trump because of his stance on immigration or his aberrant personal morality (infidelity, lies, avarice, pride, etc.). If we could not vote for any politician who took positions contrary to the teaching of the Church, we could not vote for anyone. The job of a priest is to preach values, which inform and guide moral decision-making, not make the decisions for our people. A pastor forms the conscience of his or her flock; he does not take the place of the conscience. It is one thing to say that pro-abortion politicians should not present themselves for communion; it is quite another thing to deny them when they do so. Further, I am not persuaded by the argument that the priest made a decision in conscience to refuse communion. The priest’s conscience pertains to his sins, not the sins of others.
If we were to try to avoid any and all cooperation with evil we would be unable to act at all. The principle of double effect attempts precisely to deal with this problem. Obviously the goal of never cooperating with evil is noble, but it is unreasonable in a world where good and evil are rarely unmixed. Further, there is no side of angels in political debates. As Mario Cuomo once opined: “We must have the humility and decency to admit that all of the angels rarely stand on the same side of any given issue.” Moral reasoning guided by moral principles and enlightened by grace can guide us to choose the best possible good, as we conceive it, even when evil is unavoidable. Cooperation does not imply condoning the evil: “The best is not the enemy of the good.”
Second, canonical, church law is different from civil law. In the U.S., Congress writes the law, the executive branch enforces the law and the judicial branch interprets the law and determines how it is to be applied. In Church law, the situation is much different. For Church law, the interpretation of the law is reserved to the mind and will of the legislator, who is the pope. In January of 2001, Pope John Paul II gave Communion to Mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, whose position is that of being “personally opposed to abortion, but not willing to impose his stance through law.” This stance is identical to the one taken by Biden.
Pope John Paul II gave communion to Tony Blair and Cherie Blair. At a Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 2008, celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI, Pro-abortion Catholic politicians Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry and Rudy Giuliani received the sacrament. Italian politician Nichi Vendola has also taken the Eucharist at a Mass celebrated by Benedict.
John Gehring, the author of The Francis Effect, this week tweeted that “[w]hether it’s against Democrats or Republicans, the Eucharist should never be turned into a political weapon. Pope John Paul II, a hero of the pro-life movement, gave Communion to pro-choice politicians at the Vatican.” “Denying Communion to politicians, Democrat or Republican, is a bad idea,” wrote America’s editor at large James Martin, S.J., in a Tuesday tweet: “If you deny the sacrament to those who support abortion, then you must also deny it to those who support the death penalty. How about those who don’t help the poor? How about ‘Laudato Si’’’? Where does it end?”
Moreover, you would have carved up the body of Christ over moral disagreements, which at the present time are interminable. Martin is quite right! Where will this end? Is the Church to schism over abortion? Gay rights? Immigration? The environment? What good is proportionate to the evil of tearing apart the Body of Christ? Especially when there is no reasonable expectation that said separation will bring about the desired reform. St. Paul tolerated slavery, while recognizing that, “in Christ, there is no slave or free.”
American Catholics find themselves faced with a devil’s bargain, as they continue to argue over which transgression of Church teaching is the lesser of two evils. While we war with each other, we lose more and more Catholics from both sides of the aisle. We are not liberal Catholics or conservative Catholics; we are just Catholics. Joe Biden is Catholic; Rick Santorum is Catholic. Perhaps the Church and State would be better served if Biden sought to convince the Democrats as to the sanctity of unborn life, and Santorum sought to convince the Republicans as to the importance of social justice. Perhaps we should remove the plank from our own eyes before attempting to deforest our neighbor’s eye. Both sides cry “hypocrisy,” and both sides are right!
There is a fundamental hypocrisy at work when the only reason one is denied Communion is over his or her views on the legality of abortion, even though many Catholic politicians hold views antithetical to Catholic teaching on a number of other issues. For example, in an unjust war, many innocent people die – in a just war too! However, if the violence is not justifiable, how is that any different from supporting abortion rights? Both actions lead to the loss of innocent life. As Pope Francis has said, “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Quite simply, Pope Francis has given communion to Joe Biden. Cardinal Dolan has said that he would not refuse Biden communion. His own Bishop gives him communion. How could anyone sincerely think that the popes intend that priests refuse communion, when the popes themselves do not refuse it? In Church law, it is the mind of the legislator (the Pope) who determines what the law means and how it is to be applied. If the Supreme Pontiff does not deny communion, how could a local bishop, much less a parish priest, take it upon himself to do so? I can only presume that these men act out of ignorance and not out of malice. Of course, the long-standing tendency to appoint “pastoral” bishops to the American hierarchy has produced a conference of bishops that is not very strong on the fine points of canon law or theology. Given a choice between a pious and a wise bishop, with Teresa of Avila, I would take the wise one every time.
Moreover, if the priest did not want to politicize the matter, why did he bring it to the press? If the priest really cared about the state of Biden’s soul or the scandal to the faithful, why did he not discuss the matter in private, before or after mass? The Eucharist should not be used as a penalty or a discipline. The priest could have given Biden a simple blessing and discussed the matter privately after mass. When a person comes to communion, the benefit of the doubt and presumption of worthiness goes to the person who presents himself. Moral rectitude is not the entry ticket to the Eucharistic table. If it were, very few of us should dare to approach the altar or to stand behind it. Apparently, Pope Francis does not take it upon himself to judge but a local parish priest has no compunction about doing so.
Third, pastoral, I would take issue with the pastoral approach of the South Carolina priest who denied Biden communion. The preaching of the Gospel is meant to inform and instruct, not to castigate and condemn. Does anyone really believe that denying someone communion will change anyone’s mind about abortion rights? Is it not far more prudent and Christ-like to keep the sheep in the flock, rather than to cast him or her out? A father corrects his wayward child by loving him or her, not by excommunicating him or her. To my mind, the far greater scandal is the excommunication itself!
We are losing an entire generation of Catholics because of the scandals of intolerance, clericalism and hypocrisy. Jesus was less tolerant with hypocrites than he was with sinners! Jesus tells us not to judge sinners, to treat them with mercy and to reform them by love and reason, not anathemas and excommunications. I do not judge the priest who denied Biden communion. I do, however, question his motives. He publically denies Biden in the middle of a primary fight for his party’s nomination. Was this pastoral solicitude or a politically motivated stunt? Would he deny a Republican candidate who voted for the death penalty or Draconian measures against immigration? If he would not, I think he might examine his conscience and the Scriptures a little more carefully. When Christians stray or lapse, the response of fellow-believers may vary from cruel gossip to public humiliation. This is not the way of Christ. Take note of the exchange with Zacchaeus. Jesus merely says, “Come down from the tree; I would dine with you this night!” The press and the world come down on sinners with a wolfish glee. Bad religion detracts and slanders sinners. The thoughtful, gracious, wise approach of believers cares for an erring brother or sister.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, late of Washington, states that, “withholding Holy Communion requires a minister to peer into the soul of a would-be recipient and judge it unworthy.” Well-established Catholic pastoral and sacramental practice deals with sin in the confessional and in private, and respects the absolutely inviolate character of conscience. As Thomas Aquinas stated, “Even an erroneous conscience binds.” If Biden takes his stance in conscience, he does not sin, even if the act is objectively disordered.
Paul’s Letter to the Galatians objects to any deviation from a One-Christ-Only Gospel, through faith in Jesus Christ. False teachers had peddled a perverted, Judaized, Christ-plus circumcision message. After proving his case, with a refutation of salvation-by-works, Paul asserts the radical change Christ produces, by grace, through faith, in the Spirit-filled heart. Christians ought to differ dramatically in how they handle sinners. The Church and the Gospel should not become an arm of any political party or movement of moral reform. The preacher preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ reforms the heart. Repentance and conversion cannot be forced or coerced; they are the work of the Spirit.
We are to love sinners into the faith, not force them in by the cudgel of law or threat of punishment. Jesus Christ did not merely tolerate sinners; he loved them and showed them mercy. The proper way to bring sinners back is to love them so that they may repent and be converted – not set pre-conditions for their coming back. Jesus Christ always goes to seek out the sinner. How is it that the Church would deny Jesus to sinners, when Jesus avidly went to sinners, ate with them and shared his physical presence with them?