What difference does it make if the U.S. Catholic Bishops deny President Biden communion? The problem is both theological and Constitutional.
Recently, the conservative members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops put forth a plan that, if approved by the Vatican, would allow them to deny communion to public figures who support abortion rights – including denying President Joe Biden communion. For those who are not members of the Roman Catholic Church or not familiar with Christian sacraments, the hullaballoo over denying Biden communion may be puzzling. [NOTE: See the end of this article for an update on this story.]
What difference does it make if the church denies President Biden communion (or anyone else, for that matter)?
We have to understand that according to orthodox Catholic doctrine, being cut off from the sacraments means being sentenced to hell for eternity. The sacrament of communion is for the forgiveness of sins. If a Catholic has sinned and has not received communion, their soul is in jeopardy of eternal damnation. In other words, this is serious stuff.
And, I would argue, this is a form of spiritual blackmail.
Jesus never intended communion to be used to threaten people with the fear of hell. Whether it’s cutting off those who are divorced or attempting to rebuke a political leader for their views, denying the sacrament to the faithful is a gross abuse of religious power.
But in this case of threatening an elected leader such as President Biden, this move is also a violation of church and state. You may wonder, how so? Isn’t denying Biden communion an internal matter within the church? Surely, it’s wrong and hypocritical, but would it be violating the Constitution?
Actually, yes. Let’s say, hypothetically, Biden took the rebuke from the Bishops to mean that he would be excommunicated from the church and thus, from the love of God. And then, in order to avoid eternal damnation, he would bow to the demands of the Bishops and use his office to pressure lawmakers to pass legislation limiting or eliminating abortion. And that he would nominate judges that oppose women’s freedom to exercise control over their own bodies. If this happened, then the church would be exercising undue influence over the state at the highest levels.
This would be a clear violation of the First Amendment’s clause protecting freedom of religion.
How? Because it would impose one church’s beliefs on the rest of the country via spiritual manipulation of the POTUS. In this way, this type of spiritual blackmail of denying Biden communion would result in the violation of others’ freedom.
Biden has been clear that he does not personally support abortion. This is because he believes life begins at conception. But he refuses to impose his beliefs on others. He has said he won’t cross that line, because he knows that other people of faith, as well as those who practice no religion, have different views on when life begins. President Biden took an oath of office to defend the country, not the church. This means that even if he is personally opposed to abortion, he must put that aside and uphold the right of a woman to choose what happens to her body, because that is the current law of the land.
The US Bishops know this. But the conservative faction is using communion as a political weapon.
This is not to say that they can’t voice their opposition to Biden’s position. They can certainly preach against his stance. And they can request to meet with the President to express their views and ask him to reconsider. But to threaten him with eternal damnation by withholding the sacrament—not only is this spiritual abuse, it’s a violation of the First Amendment.
I do, however, want to push back on those who are saying that because the conservative US Catholic Bishops are threatening the President with eternal damnation, it follows that no church should engage political issues.
To be clear, churches are allowed engage in political discourse.
As I explain in my book, Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), the First Amendment only provides that the government cannot establish a state church. It doesn’t mean that the church cannot critique an elected leader, especially if they think that leader is going against God’s will.
Engaging political issues doesn’t necessarily mean that clergy or churches are violating their tax-exempt status. As long as they refrain from actively campaigning for a candidate or telling people who to vote for, they are free to exercise their First Amendment right of freedom of speech from the pulpit, in the streets, and in the halls of government. In fact, I argue that clergy are obligated by their ordination vows to speak against and resist that which opposes the teachings of Christ. Thus, I encourage clergy and congregations to exercise their prophetic voice and be active participants in the public square.
The problem is that the conservative US Catholic Bishops are choosing the wrong way to engage the issue of abortion. On the theological level, they do not have the right to withhold the sacrament from anyone, including the President of the United States. The sacrament is not theirs to withhold; it is God’s gift of grace. Bishops and priests are not meant to be the gatekeepers to the sacrament. They are to trust that God is at work on the person’s heart and mind through the sacrament. On the political level, they cannot impose their will on the rest of the country by pressuring the President to bend to their wishes.
Pope Francis has already expressed concern over the conservative US Bishops’ political move.
The Eucharist, he has said, “is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.”
So, this sacramental saber-rattling is unlikely to result in any action on the part of the Vatican. But it may lead to more people withdrawing from the church in disgust over what is clearly an abuse of power.
The conservative U.S. Bishops are misguided at best, and unconstitutional, manipulative, and abusive at worst.
They would do well to recall Jesus’s words to the religious leaders of his day who attempted to control and dominate the faithful:
So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
8 “This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”’ (Matt. 15:6-9)
Beware these Bishops’ sacramental shakedown dressed up as ecclesial doctrine. Jesus called out this kind of spiritual extortion; today’s Christians leaders should do the same.
UPDATE: According to reporting by Michelle Boorstein for the Washington Post on June 25, 2021, “Days after a vote that triggered a tsunami of Catholic debate about Communion and politics, leading U.S. Catholic bishops working on an upcoming document about the sacrament are now de-emphasizing direct confrontation with President Biden or other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.” So, for now, the Bishops have walked back the plan to use the Eucharist in a punitive way towards Catholic politicians who do not square with Canon law. Read the full article here: “After controversy, U.S. Catholic bishops say there will be ‘no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians.’”
(If you’re looking for a good book to explain the connections between the Bible, public policy, and the church, my colleague and biblical scholar Dr. Jerry Sumney at Lexington Theological Seminary has written a great book, The Politics of Faith: The Bible, Government, and Public Policy [Cokesbury, 2021].)
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Her latest book, co-written with Jerry Sumney is Apocalypse When?: A Guide to Interpreting and Preaching Apocalyptic Texts (Wipf & Stock, 2020).