A Catholic Sinner Seeks Communion—And Happens to Be President

Joe Biden is framed around an image of a priest celebrating the Eucharist, the sacrament also known as communion in the Catholic Church.
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Father Kevin Gillespie and the staff at Holy Trinity Catholic Church find out that President Joe Biden is coming to Mass an hour and a half ahead of time. For security reasons, only a few people can know, including the music director, who might otherwise get suspicious when Secret Service agents start poking around in her piano. The parish limits its services to 50 people to minimize the spread of COVID-19, but it makes an exception when the president and his detail attend. The first time Biden came, everyone applauded his arrival, but then he took his spot in an out-of-the-way pew. When it was time to receive Communion, he got in line like any other parishioner. And afterward, he knelt before God.

If some Catholic leaders had their way, Biden wouldn’t be able to take Communion at all. A committee of bishops recently gathered to examine the “difficult and complex situation” of a Catholic president who publicly supports expanding abortion rights, contrary to the faith’s teachings. Later this year, a representative of that group will likely offer guidance on Biden’s future ability to take Communion. For now, the cardinal who oversees Washington, D.C., Wilton Gregory, has said the president is welcome to attend any Mass in his archdiocese. “I don’t want to go to the table with a gun,” Gregory told Religion News Service.

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Biden, the second Catholic president in American history, is a man of faith who cites Saint Augustine and hymns in his speeches and carries a rosary that belonged to his son Beau. His presidency is a historic opportunity for the Catholic Church. But he’s also a symbol of a Church at political war with itself; Catholic voters are nearly evenly divided between the parties, and the bishops have been squabbling in public over how to deal with his administration. Sinners abound in politics. The question facing the Catholic hierarchy is whether to offer the most famous Catholic sinner in America an invitation to closeness with God, or to withhold Communion until the president falls fully in line with his Church’s teachings.

Gillespie had anticipated that having the new Catholic president as a parish regular would bring attention—and controversy. He’s played shepherd to public figures before: Holy Trinity has long been a parish of the powerful. The stately, neocolonial church sits along the red-bricked sidewalks of Georgetown, a rich neighborhood two miles from the White House. Abraham Lincoln attended a funeral at the church. John F. Kennedy was a parishioner there for a decade. Senator Patrick Leahy, an active member, recently apologized to Gillespie for all the extra security that has to come with him now that he’s the Senate president pro tempore and third in the line of succession to the presidency. “I said, ‘Well, what else is new?’” Gillespie told me.

Although the Catholic Church can seem centralized and hierarchical, parish priests and their bishops also hold significant power. These local Catholic leaders, not bishops who mostly live thousands of miles away, are the ones who determine in practice whether Biden can regularly receive Communion. Gillespie checked with Gregory to make sure he had the cardinal’s backing, and both men are resolute: The sacrament of the Eucharist—through which Catholics believe they experience the presence of Jesus by consuming his body and blood, transformed from a wafer and wine—should not be used as a carrot or a stick.

“It’s really an encounter with God,” Gillespie said. For Biden, this “sacred and intimate moment” is a “gift that enhances his faith, and it energizes his witness,” and “we most certainly encourage him to improve his intimacy with God through the Eucharist.”

And yet, Holy Trinity has gotten more than 100 angry phone calls, letters, and emails in recent weeks, protesting Gillespie’s choice to offer Biden Communion. In supporting same-sex relationships and “facilitating the evil of abortion,” the president “has demonstrated that he is not in full communion with the Catholic Church,” wrote the retired archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, in a December article in First Things, a small magazine of conservative and religious thought. “The president should stop defining himself as a devout Catholic,” Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann, the chair of pro-life activities for the bishops’ conference, recently told The Catholic World Report, after arguing during this year’s virtual March for Life that integrity requires Catholics to skip Communion if their actions violate Church teachings. On Inauguration Day, the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference, José Gomez, put out a lengthy, ambivalent statement, declaring Biden’s piety “inspiring” while condemning him for advancing “moral evils.”

Now there’s a standoff between those who see Biden’s presidency as an opportunity and those who see it as a scandal. Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, arguably Pope Francis’s closest ally in the United States, issued a rare public condemnation of his brother bishops, tweeting that Gomez’s statement was “ill-considered.” San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, another Francis ally, warned against the “weaponization of Eucharist.” At Holy Trinity, the parish council—which happens to be led by two U.S. government employees—put together letters to Gomez, Gregory, and the Vatican’s top official in Washington, condemning what it described as the Gomez statement’s myopic focus on abortion and its potential to further divide Catholics of goodwill. Council members called on the bishops to promote a more holistic message about what it means to be a faithful Catholic, which includes protecting the environment, caring for the poor, and advocating against the death penalty. A Black Lives Matter sign hangs outside the church. Homilies regularly focus on social-justice issues. The parish is run by Jesuits, the order of priests whom the president credits with keeping him Catholic. Pope Francis, whose photo sits directly behind Biden’s desk in the Oval Office, is part of this order.

Neither political party is a completely comfortable home for Catholics. “Most people think, Okay, if you’re a Democrat, you don’t have a heart, you don’t have a soul, and you don’t believe in anything in the Bible or have any faith,” Bart Stupak, a Democrat and former representative from Michigan, told me. The lifelong Catholic decided to leave Congress in 2010 after a protracted battle over the Affordable Care Act, in which he fought for an amendment to the health-care bill prohibiting the use of federal funds for most abortions. When I asked him whether the Democratic Party still has room for people who describe themselves as pro-life, he paused. “I struggle with that all the time,” he said. For decades, Biden was one of a handful of prominent Democrats, mostly Catholics, who expressed personal discomfort with abortion. But by the 2020 presidential-election cycle, it was not clear that he could win his party’s nomination if he didn’t change his long-held position and come out in support of federal funding for abortion. Stupak is frustrated that the bishops would impose a sort of “litmus test” for Catholics in public life—especially because it seems to be narrowly applied to select issues of Catholic doctrine. “You have President Biden, and you have President Trump,” Stupak said. “Who believes more in social and economic justice? If you listen to a number of the bishops, it was Donald Trump. I don’t know how anyone can say that.”

The conflict over Communion is an old one for U.S. bishops. When John Kerry, another Catholic politician who supports abortion rights, ran as the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, several prelates announced that they would deny him Communion, urged on by activist groups such as the American Life League. At the time, the bishops’ conference leaned away from denying Communion to political leaders who defied Catholic teachings, and after Kerry lost, the issue mostly fizzled. The basic conflict was the same: On issues such as abortion, partisan politics guides the instincts of American Catholics just as much as theology does.

For Biden, though, attending Mass may be one of the least partisan things he does—it’s where he seeks the strength to lead: “I literally pray that I have the capacity to do for the country what you all deserve need be done,” he said on CNN recently. He learned the choreography as a kid in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the 1940s; while some people sit in their pew after receiving Communion, Biden gets down on both knees “like a marine would,” Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania told me last summer. “When he’s kneeling, in church, he’s just a regular parishioner,” Gillespie said. “And I think that’s what he wants to be.”

The political divide among American Catholics is so sharp, you can see it on a map of the capital region. Just a few cobblestoned blocks away from Holy Trinity, across the Key Bridge, lies the Diocese of Arlington, widely known in Washington as the preferred home for conservative Catholics who work in politics. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch supporter of the death penalty, attended Mass at Saint Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls. Sean Spicer, who as press secretary defended President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration, has been active at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Old Town Alexandria. These stances, and many of the policies pushed by the Republican Party, also conflict with Catholic teachings, but the bishops never called on parish priests to deny these men Communion. Everyone who seeks the Eucharist is a sinner in need of God’s grace.