San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrates Easter Mass, which was live-streamed, at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, April 12, 2020.

What the debate over Biden receiving Communion may mean for the world

Most US Catholics believe President Biden should receive Communion, despite his stance on abortion. The push by conservative US bishops to deny him the Eucharist may have more of an impact in other countries.

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San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrates Easter Mass, which was live-streamed, at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, April 12, 2020. Cordileone hopes his fellow bishops, at their upcoming national meeting in June, will agree to send a strong message of disapproval to Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion rights.

Jeff Chiu/AP

Several US Catholic bishops have suggested that when they hold their national meeting in June, they’ll discuss denying Holy Communion to Catholic President Joe Biden. That’s because many feel Biden’s support for abortion rights puts him outside of Catholic doctrine.

“If you find that you are unwilling or unable to abandon your advocacy for abortion, you should not come forward to receive Holy Communion. To publicly affirm the Catholic faith, while at the same time publicly rejecting one of its fundamental teachings, is simply dishonest.”

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone

“If you find that you are unwilling or unable to abandon your advocacy for abortion, you should not come forward to receive Holy Communion,” San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said last week. “To publicly affirm the Catholic faith, while at the same time publicly rejecting one of its fundamental teachings, is simply dishonest.”

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In March, a Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 70% of US Catholics agree that Biden’s stance on abortion shouldn’t determine whether he receives Communion. The fact that conservative bishops are debating the point may have more of an impact outside the US.

“I think the point there is how influential the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is globally,” said Amanda Ussak, international program director for the group Catholics for Choice. “The USCCB is one of the most conservative national conferences around the world — what they say influences the lives of people all over the world.”

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Ussak said the group empowers conservative bishops in countries where church and state aren’t so firmly separated, where they can talk about politics without the risk of losing tax-exempt status.

“That deteriorates the separation of church and state; that deteriorates [what separates] personal morals from public legality,” she said. “And that's a very serious problem.”

For Catholics, Communion is an act of sacred fellowship in which priests bestow the body of Christ, in the form of a wafer, to congregants. Denying a Catholic Communion is a form of punishment and — especially in small communities — public shaming.

The first Catholic US president — John F. Kennedy — was dogged by suspicions that his policies would be influenced by the Vatican. Biden’s accused of the opposite. He has caused worry for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops by lifting restrictions on federal funding for research with fetal tissue and restoring grants to organizations across the globe that perform abortions.

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The threat of not receiving Communion doesn’t seem to be holding Biden back. When a priest denied him Communion in 2019, Biden brushed it off.

“That’s a private matter. I’m not going to talk about that. It’s not an issue I’ve found anywhere else, including from the Holy Father, who gave me Communion.”

President Joe Biden

“That’s a private matter. I’m not going to talk about that,” he said. “It’s not an issue I’ve found anywhere else, including from the Holy Father, who gave me Communion.”

Still, there are plenty of places where conservative bishops are losing ground. Women celebrated when Argentina made abortion legal late last year. In 2018, people in Ireland did the same, despite opposition from many church leaders. Their objections weren’t part of the mainstream debate in Ireland about whether to legalize abortion, said Sydney Calkin, a social scientist and lecturer at the Queen Mary University of London.

“The debate, by and large, didn't play out in terms of, you know, ‘What does the Catholic hierarchy think,’” she said.

Calkin wrote a paper contrasting what happened in Ireland to Poland, where the Catholic Church has institutional power and strong political ties. Despite massive protests, Catholic leaders there have successfully pushed to tighten restrictions on abortion.

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“Overall, the Catholic Church in Poland has this very, very strong set of anti-abortion preferences, and they have the institutional power to realize those preferences,” Calkin said, adding that 98% of the abortions that would have been legal in 1993 are now illegal in Poland.

Pope Francis believes women who have abortions can receive Communion and be absolved, according to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Forgiveness has defined Francis’ papacy. Conservative bishops would need the pope’s approval if they want to make it official church policy to deny Communion to Biden. Few believe that Francis would go along with that.