Read: The Catholic temptation
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.”
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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.”