Perhaps the only thing that should be surprising about a Catholic priest’s recent decision to deny Holy Communion to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is that anyone is surprised.
On Sunday, Oct. 27, Fr. Robert E. Morey at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Florence, South Carolina, refused to give Holy Communion to Biden. Fr. Morey cited Biden’s pro-abortion stance as the reason for his action. Naturally, it was a matter of hours before the priest was castigated by public figures and in the media for displaying an un-Christian lack of mercy, and for using the sacraments to play politics.
Unfortunately, some of this criticism came from within the Church herself. Fr. James Martin, for instance, whose public profile has grown enormously these past few years, took to Twitter to proclaim the priest’s actions a “bad idea.” Fr. Martin disingenuously suggested that if we start denying Holy Communion to politicians who support abortion, we would have to do so for politicians who “don’t help the poor” or who support the death penalty.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, when asked about the case, chose his words somewhat more carefully, saying that the priest had a “good point,” insofar as Biden is “publicly at odds” with the Church. Nevertheless, he said, he himself would not deny Biden Holy Communion. Like Fr. Martin, Cardinal Dolan pointed to Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy, concluding: “If only saints could receive Holy Communion, we wouldn’t have anybody at Mass, including myself.”
The curious thing about Fr. Martin’s and Cardinal Dolan’s remarks is that they seemed to take it for granted that there exists a dichotomy between being merciful and denying someone Holy Communion. Far from being self-evident, however, this point is eminently debatable. In fact, Church teaching and law, and the whole tradition of Catholic pastoral practice, quite clearly suggest that the exact opposite is true: that in some cases by far the most merciful thing a priest could do would be to deny someone Holy Communion.
Church Teaching and Canon Law are Clear
It is perfectly true, as Pope Francis has repeatedly said (and as Fr. Martin tweeted), that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” However, if this were the whole story, the Church would give the Eucharist to absolutely anyone and everyone. Instead, however, the Church has always taught (and still teaches) that if certain basic requirements are not met, then a person may seriously harm themselves by receiving Holy Communion.
The most basic of these requirements is that a person be a baptized Catholic. However, even in the case of someone who meets this essential requirement, the Church has always taken deadly seriously St. Paul’s stern warning: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). Such a person, says St. Paul, “drinks judgment to himself.” For this reason, the Church urges every Catholic to examine their consciences before receiving the Eucharist, to see if they are guilty of mortal sin. If they are, then the Church teaches they must first go to Confession, and that if they knowingly receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin, they commit the further grave sin of sacrilege. In most cases this process of discernment is personal and private. However, the Church also recognizes that there are circumstances in which a minister of the Eucharist must refuse a person Holy Communion, for his own good, and for the good of the whole Church. The circumstances when this is necessary are clearly spelled out in Canon Law. Indeed, Canon 915 could not be any clearer: “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
Those who are so quick to condemn Fr. Morey’s actions must realize that he was doing nothing more than humbly obeying the law of the Church. Clearly (and quite reasonably, it seems to me) Fr. Morey believes that persistently supporting the murder of innocent children over a period of decades amounts to “manifest grave sin” and thus is covered by this canon. As it turns out, a policy in the diocese of Charleston, South Carolina (where Fr. Morey’s church is located), removes all doubt in the matter. That policy states:
“Catholic public officials who consistently support abortion on demand are cooperating with evil in a public manner. By supporting pro-abortion legislation, they participate in manifest grave sin, a condition which excludes them from admission to Holy Communion as long as they persist in the pro-abortion stance.”
Cardinal Ratzinger – later Pope Benedict XVI – himself strongly urged the application of Canon 915 in the case of politicians who support grave evils in a 2004 letter to the U.S. bishops. Cardinal Burke, then the head of the Catholic Church’s highest court, himself expressed wonderment that anyone was even debating the issue. “I don’t understand the continual debate that goes on about it [denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians],” he stated. “There’s not a question that a Catholic who publicly, and after admonition, supports pro-abortion legislation is not to receive Holy Communion and is not to be given Holy Communion.”
It seems to me, then, that Fr. Morey is perfectly correct in the reasoning he gave for his actions. He noted that “Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church,” and added, “Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.”
Now, there are some people who persistently try to paint Joe Biden as a “moderate.” Such as these will claim that the application of Canon 915 to Biden is thus misguided.
It is true that, amidst a crowd of 2020 Democratic candidates who are continually striving to outdo one another in their pro-abortion and anti-family extremism, Biden can sometimes appear in shades of grey. But this is merely by comparison. In most of the ways that count, Biden is a true extremist whose views are so radically opposed to Catholic teaching that it is difficult to see how anyone can possibly maintain that Canon 915 does not apply to him.
Let us take a moment to count some of the ways.
Though it is true that Biden has been marginally slower than some of his Democratic colleagues to embrace and promote the most radical positions advocated by the abortion industry, it is fair to say that at this point it is difficult to think of ways he could be more extreme. For instance, earlier this year he announced that he is no longer opposed to taxpayer funding of abortion. In announcing his opposition to the Hyde Amendment – the annual amendment that prohibits taxpayer funding of abortion – Biden described abortion as women’s “constitutionally protected right.” So not only does Biden think the U.S. Constitution contains a “right” for women to have their babies murdered, he also believes that the government should use your taxpayer dollars to pay for the killing.
But that’s not all. In 2015, during a visit to China, then Vice President Biden told a Chinese audience that he “fully understands” and “is not second-guessing” that country’s so-called one-child policy. In case you need a reminder, that policy, which has only been slightly relaxed in recent years, has been brutally enforced through forced abortions – including up to the ninth month of pregnancy – forced sterilizations, and massive fines. And yet, Vice President Biden couldn’t bring himself to suggest that there just might be something wrong with that.
But enough about Biden’s enthusiasm for the slaughter of innocent unborn babies. Let’s take a brief look at his extremist position on so-called “LGBT” issues. The Catholic Church, of course, teaches that while homosexuals must be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” the homosexual orientation itself is “intrinsically disordered” and homosexual acts are themselves acts of “grave depravity.” Unsurprisingly, the Church also insists upon the right for the Church, its institutions, and individual Christians, to follow Christian teaching on this matter.
To say that Biden does not agree with the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality would be a gross understatement. Under the Obama administration, Catholic adoption agencies were forced to close shop after the administration introduced regulations requiring all adoption agencies to adopt children out to same-sex couples (the Trump administration suspended these draconian regulations just this past week). Biden himself had nothing to say as charitable institutions run by the Church to which he professes to belong that had brought joy to countless children over the decades, were crushed by his administration’s rules.
Indeed, Biden is so enthusiastic about same-sex “marriage,” that he even beat Obama and Hilary Clinton – hardly social moderates – to the punch in endorsing gay marriage in 2012. The very first “wedding” at which Biden himself officiated was between two men. Biden has also been quick to throw his full weight behind the issue of transgenderism – an issue that is being used right now to bully Christians and people of common sense.
Earlier this year, speaking at a gala for the extremist pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign, Biden stated that passing the radical and dangerous Equality Act would be the “first thing” he would ask to be done if he became president. The Equality Act would change the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include “sex,” “sexual orientation,” and “gender identity” as recognized “non-discrimination” categories. Conservatives have warned that, contrary to its benign name, the bill would sanction discrimination against Christians and conservatives. And this is Biden’s top priority.
I could go on like this for a long time. On the issues of abortion and homosexuality, Biden is not only not in line with Catholic teaching, he is virulently, steadfastly, consistently and unambiguously an enemy of the Church’s teachings.
Fr. Morey’s Decision: True Mercy
Biden’s errors are so grave, so public, and so persistent, that it seems quite clear that, far from being “unmerciful,” Fr. Morey’s decision to deny Biden Holy Communion was the most merciful thing he could do. In the first place, it is an act of mercy for those who might mistakenly think that, because the Church has taken no formal steps to sanction Biden, it has no problem with, or even supports his erroneous positions on things like abortion and same-sex “marriage.” The scandal that is created when prominent pro-abortion and pro-LGBT Catholic figures go unchallenged, or are even lauded and feted in Catholic churches, imperils souls. This scandal risks confusing other Catholics, emboldening them to flout Church teaching on crucial moral matters due to the impression that the Church simply doesn’t take those issues seriously, or is even in the process of “changing” its teachings. A truly merciful pastor is he who protects his sheep by warning them back from the cliff towards which they are hurtling.
But in the second place, it is merciful towards Biden himself. Biden will one day have to answer for the innocent unborn babies whose violent deaths he could have prevented, for the degradation of the family and our culture caused by his advocacy for sexual libertinism, and for the public scandal he has created by claiming to be a faithful Catholic while so publicly advocating the exact opposite of Church teaching. Fr. Morey’s decision to hold the line not only prevented Biden from committing sacrilege by receiving the Eucharist unworthily, he also gave Biden a rare opportunity to search his soul, and to ask himself whether he is living as he ought. To telegraph to Biden that he is doing nothing wrong by giving him Holy Communion is a false mercy. To call him back to truth – now that is true mercy.
Those who continue to argue that Fr. Morey erred in his decision have to contend with St. Paul, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the clear policy of Fr. Morey’s own diocese, Canon Law, and the clear instructions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which Cardinal Ratzinger lead when he sent his 2004 letter to the U.S. bishops). Thus far, I haven’t seen any of Fr. Morey’s critics seriously deal with any of these. Vague appeals to “mercy” simply don’t cut it.