Priests, prudence, politics: Why Joe Biden was refused Holy Communion at a Catholic Mass

Thomas Petri, Opinion contributor

Former Vice President Joseph Biden was denied Holy Communion at a parish in South Carolina last week due to his public support for abortion. This is apparently the policy of the bishop in South Carolina. The incident offers an opportunity to clarify what is required for a person to receive Holy Communion at a Catholic Mass.

For Catholics, Holy Communion is, among other things, a sign of communion in Jesus Christ as well as a cause of strengthening that communion. We believe Jesus Christ himself is present in this sacrament. Therefore, with only a few exceptions, the Catholic Church does not permit other Christians who are not in full communion to receive the sacrament. To do otherwise would be to lie about what we believe.

Catholics can present themselves to receive Holy Communion at Mass when they are not conscious of a grave and mortal sin they’ve committed and when they have normally fasted for at least an hour in preparation for this holy act of receiving Christ. We believe committing a mortal sin separates us from the life of God and communion with Jesus Christ. To receive Holy Communion in such a condition runs the risk, in the words of St. Paul, of eating and drinking judgment on oneself.

When conscious of mortal sin, Catholics have another sacrament available to them: confession. Confessing our sins to a priest with the firm intention of amending our lives and receiving Christ’s forgiveness through the priest’s absolution restores us to grace and makes us worthy once again, despite our weakness, to receive Holy Communion.

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This is the normal way of things for typical Catholics committing sins, as we sinners generally do. Sometimes Catholics get embroiled in sinful choices and a sinful lifestyle. Trapped in a cycle of vice and addiction, they can still frequent confession, receive absolution, make slow progress, and all the while they receive Holy Communion regularly.

Persisting in something sinful

But some Catholics can become callous to concerns of family, friends, or pastors. This is always distressing to everyone involved. The situation is worsened in the Church’s view when a person is publicly obstinate in grave sin and insists that there’s nothing immoral about what they do. Canon 915 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law requires those "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a town hall meeting in Maquoketa, Iowa, in October 2019.

The reason the Church might bar such persons from Holy Communion is precisely because their sin is not only grave but it’s also public (i.e., “manifest”) and they’re obstinate in holding it. Such a person is no longer living in communion with the Church, so allowing this person to receive Holy Communion would also be a lie.

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Abortion is a grave evil. This is not an issue of religion but of the fundamental human right to life. Those who publicly support abortion or enable it (whether by legislation or by cooperation) are complicit in this evil whether they are politicians or a typical parishioner in the pew. Such persons not only need to go to confession before receiving Holy Communion, but they need to show that they are not obstinate in their agenda. This usually means some assertion disavowing their previous waywardness.

While abortion is one of the gravest evils of our day, it’s not the only reason someone might be denied Holy Communion. A person explicitly and obstinately promoting racism would be denied Holy Communion, as happened in New Orleans in 1962.

Too many priests don't have guidance 

The pastoral difficulty of this aspect of Church teaching is that it requires pastors to speak to and to convince those who are advocating policies and actions contrary to the Gospel in order to determine if they are, in fact, obstinate. This is normally left to the pastor of a parish, but since the reach of politicians transcends parishes many bishops have taken on this responsibility for themselves.

Catholic believers attend a mass in Altamira, Brazil, in August 2019.

However, the U.S. bishops are not united in their pastoral approach. A few bishops make it policy to deny communion to publicly obstinate politicians, but many more insist Holy Communion should not be denied lest the sacrament be reduced to a political football. What is rarely said is whether bishops are actually approaching politicians pastorally (or even if they’re attempting to do so) in order to persuade them of the gravity of their position. It would be a rare event indeed for a bishop to say publicly, “I’ve spoken to the senator and he’s obstinate in his pro-abortion stance.”

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This has left most priests without any guidance from their bishop on these matters and has left the faithful to wonder whether the Church is merely a political institution after all.

Nobody likes to say “no” or to exclude, but the Church teaches that sometimes it’s necessary not only for the good of the person but also to be consistent with our teachings about communion. This will be a difficult tightrope we walk for the foreseeable future.

Father Thomas Petri, a Dominican priest, is a professor of moral theology and the dean of the faculty at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @PetriOP

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden refused Holy Communion by South Carolina Catholic priest