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The weaponised Eucharist

  • 01 July 2021
The debate among American bishops around whether President Biden and other Catholic politicians should be denied Holy Communion because of their policies on abortion is an important and unsettling one. Let me say at the start that I think it would be a tragedy if the bishops were to venture down this path.

For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘preeminent priority.’ In a statement congratulating President Biden on his election victory, Archbishop Gomez, the President of the US Bishops Conference, noted that: ‘Preeminent does not mean "only"’. We have deep concerns about many threats to human life and dignity in our society. But as Pope Francis teaches, we cannot stay silent when nearly a million unborn lives are being cast aside in our country year after year through abortion’. His full statement illustrates the complexity many bishops believe they face in the election of a devout Catholic to the presidency.

It is worth noting, however, that, in the increasingly polarised American church, polls show that the majority of Catholic disagree with the proposed action by the bishops. Regular Mass-goers, however, are sympathetic to those bishops taking a hard line on pro-choice politicians.

And there are precedents in American history. Some point to the example of Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans who, in 1962, not only denied Communion to three Catholics, but formally excommunicated the three, who vehemently opposed his efforts to desegregate Catholic schools. Archbishop Ritter of St Louis had previously threatened excommunication in 1947 to Catholic opponents of desegregation.

More recently, the question has been raised regarding a number of politicians based on their stance on abortion. In 2008, New York Cardinal Edward Egan condemned former Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s decision to receive Communion during a papal visit to the city because of Giuliani’s support for abortion rights. The issue has become more acute given that President Biden is very clear in articulating his commitment to his faith, and its importance to him.

It is worth noting further, that there have been significant recent developments in the Democratic Party over abortion that go some way to explaining the controversy. Whereas Hillary Clinton argued that abortion should be ‘safe, legal and rare’ in 2008, that position would not be acceptable now in Democratic circles (in 2016 she dropped ‘rare’). Similarly, the position of Catholic politicians who could say they were personally opposed to abortion, but they were bound to