This June, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will vote on whether to to formally deny Holy Communion to President Joe Biden. President Biden, like so many of us, is a devout yet dissenting Catholic. For some Catholics, this seems like a contradiction in terms. How can a person claim to be devout while also dissenting? In reality, it’s pretty simple. People have consciences. They believe in the basic theological tenets of Catholicism, the Eucharist, and the Creed. As for doctrinal teaching on abortion, gay marriage, trans rights and birth control – well, we disagree. To be clear, I find Joe Biden’s stance on abortion abhorrent. But I do not find it scandalous. The sin of scandal is anything that turns believers away from the faith. Denying him Holy Communion because of a conscientious dissent from Church doctrine will scandalize far more believers than the president’s moral failings ever will.
President Biden and the Sin of Scandal
The USCCB, along with many conservatives Catholics, is concerned that allowing a man who openly endorses abortion to receive Communion will cause a scandal. It’s worth pointing out that the word scandal in Catholicism has a considerably different meaning than general usage. An individual commits the sin of scandal when they knowingly commit an action that leads others to evil. By presenting himself as a practicing Catholic and also supporting abortion, Biden grants permission to other Catholics to support abortion. This would be a convincing argument if every Catholic with a pulse – and really every American – didn’t already know that the Church strongly condemns abortion. In fact, if someone knows absolutely nothing else about Catholicism, they likely know that the Catholic Church opposes abortion and gay marriage. Unless otherwise informed, they might even think Catholicism was a religion about abortion and gay marriage. Only a highly informed believer might be aware that it’s actually a religion about salvation through mystical and physical union with the resurrected God. But I digress.
Scandal Damages Faith
Fundamentally, a scandal is anything that significantly damages the faith of a believer. I’ve lived through many scandals in my life. The sex abuse crisis comes to mind – an ongoing scandal in both the secular and religious sense. The way my LGBTQ+ peers are treated in the Church is a scandal. The USCCB obsessing over Joe Biden’s moral failings is a scandal. I’m not going to start supporting abortion because Joe Biden supports abortion. I may choose to attend services at an Anglo-Catholic or Episcopalian Church because the USCCB has decided that dissenters don’t warrant being part of the body of Christ. Because as much as I disagree with Biden’s politics, I relate to his faith more than I could ever relate to the faith of men who honestly think sexual abuse is more forgivable than taking birth control. I don’t want to leave. At all. I, like Joe Biden, believe that the Roman Catholic Church is the One True Church. I believe the pope sits on the throne of Peter. If I leave it won’t be because I wanted to, but because I was thrown out. That’s scandal.
What is the Faith?
When a Catholic presents themselves for Holy Communion, they do so of their own volition. They are making a statement that, to the best of their knowledge, they are not in a state of mortal sin. They are also asserting that they believe in the core tenets of the faith. I believe in the Dogma of the Church: Christ’s resurrection, Mary’s perpetual virginity, and – most radically – the Real Presence. I believe these things deeply, in my truest heart. As for the things I struggle with, I bring them to Confession, I talk about them with spiritual advisors and trusted friends. I bring them to God frequently. Every priest I’ve ever spoken to has confirmed that I can and should still receive Communion, and I have believed them. This business with Joe Biden casts that all into doubt.
It’s obvious that Joe Biden also believes all the things I believe. If he is barred from Holy Communion because of doctrinal disagreements, then what can be said for the rest of us? Does our Amen, as argued in the conservative outlet Our Sunday Visitor, mean that we assert every single teaching of the Catholic Church? Or does it mean precisely what the words state:
Body of Christ? Amen.