On Friday, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops voted by a 168-55 margin to proceed with drafting a document on “Eucharistic coherence” to be debated and voted on at the November meeting of the USCCB. This document, as currently discussed, would encourage priests to refuse Communion to Catholics who they know to be in a state of mortal sin.
This is a battle that has been brewing for a couple of decades, and it is only the insertion of Joe Biden into the presidency that has brought it to a head.
The significance of 75% of US bishops agreeing to move forward on an issue vehemently opposed by the progressive caucus is hard to overstate. The hard work to develop such a statement remains ahead, but the fact that a body that is usually timorous at the mere mention of anything that is not consensus is little short of amazing. It is degrading that the USCCB is actually debating the enforcement of Catholicism 101, but, given the state of the Church in America, it is actually progress.
I’ve been struggling with how to approach this issue for a while because, on one level, it is Catholic inside baseball. It involves a Sacrament, Communion, or the Eucharist, that is viewed the same particular way by the Roman Catholic Church, the various Orthodox churches, and the Anglican Church. The rules on receiving that Sacrament, at least within the Catholic Church, are pretty unambiguous. Reception of Communion is only open to Catholics:
We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us. We pray that these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ’s prayer for us “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).
Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion. Eucharistic sharing in exceptional circumstances by other Christians requires permission according to the directives of the diocesan bishop and the provisions of canon law (canon 844 §4). Members of the Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Polish National Catholic Church are urged to respect the discipline of their own Churches. According to Roman Catholic discipline, the Code of Canon Law does not object to the reception of Communion by Christians of these Churches (canon 844 §3).
So whenever you see claims that President Trump was admitted to Communion, you are dealing with a profoundly stupid and disturbed person:
If they accepted trump there is no way they can deny anybody, ever. Especially President Biden who is the most genuine religious person.
— Effina (@effinalavina) June 18, 2021
Within the Church, Communion is not open to everyone in the pews all the time. Before receiving Communion, you are supposed to do an examination of conscience. If you are aware of any substantial transgression you’ve committed, you are supposed to not partake of the Eucharist. Our reference for this standard is Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27, “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.”
What do I mean by examination of conscience? This is the detailed version that children get introduced to and which you are encouraged to use to make a valid Confession. But these are the kind of things that should prevent you from participating in Communion.
As Paul makes clear, the person who decides to receive Communion while conscious of being in a state of mortal sin increases the severity of his own offense. So if Biden receives Communion, why does anyone care?
The crux issue is obviously abortion. I think that within the next three years, we will also see euthanasia and experimentation with human embryos leap onto the stage, but, for right now, the issue is abortion. This is the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion:
2270 Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.72
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.73
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.74
2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:
You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.75
God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.76
2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,”77 “by the very commission of the offense,”78 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law.79 The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
Biden is a virulent, anywhere, anytime pro-abort. As such, he is under excommunication, as is any other so-called pro-choice Catholic. You really can’t say, “I’d never have an abortion but I can’t decide for someone else.” That is just like saying, “I’d never murder someone but I can’t decide for anyone else.” Excommunication latae sententiae means that by the very act of supporting abortion, you place yourself outside of communion with the Church; it does not require the Church to take any action or even know that you’re supporting infanticide.
But if Biden will be held accountable at particular judgment for receiving the Eucharist while in a state of excommunication, why does anyone care? Biden, himself, sorta made that case on Friday:
Biden looked like a deer in the headlights just now as a reporter asked for his thoughts on U.S Catholic bishops taking steps toward possible rebuke of him due to his conflicting actions on abortion:
"That's a private matter and I don't think that's going to happen." pic.twitter.com/xa84y97GwB
— Benny (@bennyjohnson) June 18, 2021
He’s right about the first half of it, somewhat. In Moral Theology, there is a concept called “scandal.” I’m going to quote at length from an excellent resource that gives more context and nuance to the term but scandal, not abortion, is at stake here. You’ll recognize it as a revised and extended version of Saint Matthew’s Gospel 18:6, “…but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,[a] it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
…The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Scandal is an attitude or behaviour which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbour’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offence if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offence” (CCC 2284).
One of the worst things we can do to others is lead them into sin. If we hit them, insult them or gossip about them we do not harm them in their relationship with God, which is their most priceless possession. But if we lead them into sin we harm this relationship and can even jeopardise their eternal salvation. As the Catechism says, we become their tempter, much as Satan does, and we can draw them into spiritual death, or mortal sin. Indeed, as the Catechism says, if our behaviour leads someone else to commit a grave offence, or mortal sin, we have committed a mortal sin ourselves.
Especially serious is scandal caused by persons with authority over those led into sin. This includes parents, teachers, priests, and in general any adult with an underage person. Our Lord was particularly strong in condemning it: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6). The Catechism teaches: “Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing” (CCC 2285; cf. Lk 17:1).
There are many ways in which one can commit scandal. The most obvious is by leading another person directly into sin. A young man who engages in sexual activity with a girl, a married man who entices a woman to commit adultery with him, a person who invites someone to attend an inappropriate film or show, someone who encourages another to commit a crime with him, a business manager who tells his staff to lie to the customer, etc., all commit scandal and are responsible not only for their own sin but also for that of the other.
Another obvious way of committing scandal is by giving bad example, without necessarily intending to lead others into sin. This can include using bad language, dressing immodestly, praising a film that contains inappropriate material, drinking alcohol to excess, etc. This is what we mean by scandalous behaviour. A girl, or a boy for that matter, who dresses or behaves immodestly can be guilty of the sins of all those who look at them with lust or have impure thoughts or desires as a result. Parents have a special responsibility to take care that their children dress and act appropriately.
Parliamentarians who vote for legislation that permits immorality in such forms as abortion, pornography or embryonic stem cell research are guilty of scandal and are responsible for all the sins committed as a result. Similarly those who make immoral films, who make and sell immodest clothing, who run brothels, etc., are guilty of scandal on a grand scale.
Scandal can also be committed simply by encouraging, advising or teaching someone to do wrong, and even by not discouraging them if they tell us they are thinking of doing it.
In summary, as the Catechism explains, “Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged. ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!’” (Lk 17:1; CCC 2287).
It is one thing when a pro-abort, pro-gay marriage, living-in-adultery Catholic in the pews receives Communion unworthily. That person compounds their own sin, but it doesn’t affect much of anyone else. The priest celebrating Mass probably doesn’t know of their personal beliefs. When the person holding the office of President of the United States does it, that is a different matter. When Joe Biden presents himself for Communion and a semi-heretic like Washington’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory goes along with the farce, there are two results. First, some number of Catholics will infer from Biden receiving Communion that the Church is not serious about its opposition to abortion or that such opposition is optional. This is not a huge deal because about 56% of self-proclaimed Catholics already believe that. Second, some non-trivial number of orthodox Catholics will see the gutlessness on the part of the hierarchy and decamp for the Orthodox Church. While there is a lot of bleating about all the Catholics who will leave the Church if it cracks down on heresy, the fact is that those Catholics have already left the Church. They already believe in abortion; they accept homosexual marriage, they are fine with transgenderism. The real concern, as expressed by the 75% vote for this document, is for the 33% of Catholics who attend Mass at least once per week. Those people are the ones who contribute “time, talent and treasure” to their parish. If they slip away, the progressive, neo-pagan “smells and bells” types who are offended by the Church’s stance on sexual morality and its “patriarchy” and who think the Gospels and the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection are charming folk tales are not going to keep parishes and schools afloat.
This issue facing the USCCB is being spun as one of the conservative bishops taking shots at Biden, but that is not the case. I’d submit that most US bishops are much more Democrat than Republican, and they’d be lined up to support Biden IF he were not a notorious, in-your-face, pro-abort nominal Catholic. The issue before them is the extent to which their desire to be popular in the secular press will lead them to demolish their own congregations.