The Real Threat to American Catholicism

The American Catholic bishops’ fight with President Joe Biden reveals much about the state of the Church.

a bishop's miter superimposed on a photo of Joe Biden
Getty / The Atlantic

Should Catholics who support legal abortion receive Communion, or have they separated themselves from the body of Christ by departing from what the Church teaches? The question took on new urgency, at least for some of the country’s Catholic bishops, when Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic who has promised to protect legal abortion, was elected president. Church leaders were already alarmed by polls that seemed to show confusion among self-described Catholics about whether the Eucharist received at Mass is truly the body and blood of Christ (as Catholic doctrine holds). Now a Democratic victory threatened the progress that had been made against abortion during the term of President Donald Trump, and this after the bishops’ conference had declared abortion the most significant policy issue for Catholics—the “preeminent priority,” as José Gomez, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, put it at the conference’s meeting last November.

In the face of these challenges, a handful of America’s Catholic bishops are now at work on a document addressing “Eucharistic coherence.” The project sounds vague, and the final draft may well be. But it began with the specific question of whether Biden should be refused Communion because of his views on abortion, and it was launched at the bishops’ meeting this month despite unusually visible resistance from within the conference and even a letter of warning from the Vatican.

It’s not unreasonable for the bishops to want to get their flock on the same page regarding the Eucharist. A person’s status as a practicing Catholic depends most simply on regular attendance at Sunday Mass, where, we believe, the bread and wine offered by the priest become the actual body and blood of Christ. As a doctrine and as an event, the Eucharist is what unites us. The Church has many rules about what Catholics should or should not do to receive Communion worthily, but observing them is typically a private matter. Denying Communion to Biden or other public figures as a means of correcting their errors would be claiming the right to overrule their conscience. Some bishops have an appetite for just that sort of confrontation. For them, it is a natural extension of the emphasis they place on abortion. To others, including Biden’s bishops in Delaware and Washington, D.C., and to many lay Catholics, using the Eucharist as a partisan tool seems anything but coherent.

It has become an article of faith among some Catholics that to be a member of the Church in good standing means voting Republican; that this is not literally an article of our faith is something many bishops are content to obfuscate. I have been a practicing Catholic all my life, and my opinions about politics flow from my faith. But believing in the Eucharist doesn’t save me the trouble of weighing political priorities and considering the likely outcomes of specific policies. It would be nice to be able to count on the bishops for clear guidance. It would be nice if America’s bishops were a group of uniformly impressive men, wise, well informed, able to apply the Church’s moral teachings in a clear and consistent way to the urgent challenges of the moment—in a word, coherent. But they are as diverse and divided as the rest of us Catholics, though they rarely admit it directly.

Among the nation’s more than 400 active and retired bishops are men of great intellect and men of humble faith, and also men who tweet darkly about the evils of the COVID-19 vaccines. Some bishops are scholars, some are inspiring preachers, and some are very good at raising money. Some excel at keeping Catholic conservatives fired up; a smaller number are good at assuring liberal Catholics like me that we, too, belong in the Church. As a body, however, the American bishops have proved quite inept at representing the teachings of the Church with integrity to a public that sees mostly sin and hypocrisy. They have been particularly bad at reckoning honestly with the ugliness and devastation of President Trump’s four years in office and the scandal of Catholics who supported him. If some bishops who tolerated Trump’s failings now think it urgent to oppose Biden, then perhaps what we ought to hope for from the rest is not an appeal to unity, but a public fight about what coherence really means.

In November 2020, just after the election, Gomez told his fellow bishops that the “transition to a president that professes the Catholic faith … presents certain opportunities but also certain challenges.” Why should the election of a Catholic president matter so much? Why not address political issues in the light of Catholic teaching regardless of the religious commitments of the politicians in power? The answer Gomez gave is that seeing a professed Catholic advancing policies that oppose Church doctrine “creates confusion among the faithful about what the Catholic Church actually teaches on these questions.”

Consider, then, the case of Bill Barr, Trump’s attorney general. I know he is Catholic because he was honored by Catholic organizations and praised by several bishops while serving under Trump, in which capacity he oversaw a revival of the federal death penalty and the execution of 13 people. The Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is immoral and “inadmissible,” based on the same principle—the inviolable dignity of all human life—that forbids abortion. But the bishops’ response to this spate of killings, and to Barr’s role in it, was muted. No committees were formed to discuss this confusion. If Biden’s Catholic practice demands a response from the bishops’ conference that Barr’s did not, then the incoherence the bishops must address is their own.

It causes, or exposes, at least as much confusion about what matters to the Church when a president targets immigrant populations with open cruelty and only some of the nation’s Catholic bishops regard it as an emergency requiring a response. The fact that Trump is not a Catholic doesn’t make his policies any less a violation of human dignity. Too narrow a focus on who should be allowed to receive Communion makes the bishops look less concerned about communicating the Church’s teachings than about protecting their own power.

The bishops aren’t imagining the threat that Biden poses to their positions on abortion. They are likely mistaken, however, if they think a Communion crackdown will bring him or other wayward Catholics back in line. Declaring abortion the “preeminent” issue for Catholics has created a crisis of authority for the bishops. It has also, refreshingly, given rise to public disagreement among them. Good. Disunity and disagreement are not the biggest obstacles to the Church’s moral leadership; unchallenged hypocrisy and blindness are. In the aftermath of Trump, and of a deadly and demoralizing pandemic, I no longer look to America’s bishops expecting moral or ideological coherence. But knowing that at least some of them recognize the folly of an all-or-nothing focus on abortion gives me a glimmer of hope. If the bishops’ concern about qualifications for Communion gives way to a broader debate about balancing priorities in public life, maybe Biden’s presidency can be an opportunity for Catholic bishops to demonstrate integrity after all.