Frank DeFilippo: Catholic Prelates Engage in Toxic Mix of Religion and Politics Over Communion

President Joe Biden, before his inauguration, attended services with Dr. Jill Biden at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The Roman Catholic Church is the world’s largest precinct organization. Civilization’s oldest Christian religion has 1.33 billion constituents scattered around the globe. They are arranged geographically into 223,129 parishes on the seven continents and other land masses, with more than 17,000 here in America, where Catholics make up the largest religious denomination in the nation.

The parishes, or churches, are clustered in archdiocese/diocese, each one presided over by red-robed cardinals, archbishops or bishops. They, in turn, are autonomous up to the point of accountability to a single man, their patron and spiritual leader, the Pope, who resides at the seat of Catholicism, the eternal city of Rome and within his own tidy piece of heaven, Vatican City.

Maryland is straddled by three archdiocese/diocese — the Archdiocese of Washington, the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Diocese of Wilmington, which brackets the Eastern Shore. Each of the two archdiocese is populated by roughly 500,000 Catholics. There are an estimated 51 million Catholics in America.

In the organizational sense, the Roman Catholic Church is a caliphate, dominated by a single man, who Catholics believe speaks infallibly on matters of faith and morals as church teachings, but on all else speaks the same language as the rest of us mortals, though perhaps less colorfully. Talk about a man with a constituency.

In doctrinal matters, the Pontiff, the church and its hierarchical princes move slower than evolution, if at all. Among the pillars on which the Catholic Church is built is immutability — it rarely, if ever, changes, even over 2,000 years.

Where these second-tier ecclesiastics are not bound by the dogmatic strictures established by Papal decree, they are the local sheriffs in charge of enforcing teachings as well as religious conduct within the church’s stained-glass surroundings, and kind of a moral code of conduct within society in general as part of their pastoral duties.

It is within those brackets of authority that some austere prelates have boundary issues with President Joe Biden, as they have asserted before, and again last week when 260 prelates met virtually for the annual summer conference of bishops.

Biden supports a woman’s right to choose abortion as the law of the land but not the procedure itself. The issue is not Biden the person, but that durable deal-breaker of conservative culture, a matter of life and death to some, and a personal choice for others.

The decision comes at a time when the Catholic hierarchy has major problems of its own, with sex abuse cases involving pedophile priests and a rapidly diminishing pool of churchgoers.

The Catholic Church, and many other religions, teaches that life begins at the moment of conception. And in the extreme, any interference with that moment is the taking of an innocent life, or, well, let’s just say it, murder.

Accordingly, a vocal group of prelates want to deny Biden, and presumably other Catholic pro-choice politicians, the right to communion, the most sacred and private rite within the church’s canon of absolutist rituals.

And under the church’s rules of engagement, they can, individually, prevent the president from participating in the sacrament, the most solemn moment of the celebratory mass, a kind of silent ostracism that would be accompanied by noisy publicity.

However, Pope Francis has stressed to the bishops the need for unity over division and caution in their approach to tampering with the spiritual life of the president.

From the Vatican itself, the signals originating from Rome have been fuzzy and far from direct but appear to be hinting that what’s at stake beyond abortion is the other good stuff that Biden brings to the U.S. presidency and the world and are in line with Pope Francis’ priorities — the Green New Deal, the Paris Climate Accord, the reversal of anti-immigration policies, expanding health care and fighting discrimination and poverty.

Biden finds himself at the toxic intersection of politics and religion. After three days of emotional debate, the bishops voted 168-55 by secret ballot to prepare a teaching document to establish guidelines on the meaning of Holy Communion, a sign of their sharp internal division as well as a possible eventual limit on Biden’s ability to participate in the sacrament, for those who choose to enforce such action.

The issue was unity vs. doctrine. And it appears that Biden needn’t worry about being cut off from communion as long as he’s in Washington.

Prior to the vote, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, was reported to have said that his priests will not deny communion to Biden.

“The choice before us at this moment is either we pursue a path of strengthening unity or settle for a document that will not bring unity but will further damage it,” Wilton was reported as saying.

Biden frequently attends mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, in Georgetown, not far from the White House.

The counterpoint to Wilton’s dismissive view was expressed pointedly by Archbishop Francisco Cordileone, of San Francisco, who was quoted as saying: “The eyes of the whole country are on us. If we don’t act courageously, clearly and convincingly on this core Catholic value, how can we expect to be taken seriously on another matter?” Cordileone presides over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D) archdiocese.

Biden is the nation’s second Catholic president, after John F. Kennedy, and a very public Catholic. He attends mass and receives communion every Sunday, no matter where he is. Attendance at Sunday mass is an obligation under church law to remain in good standing. And communion has become more accessible and frequent to many of the faithful with the elimination of the penitent fasting requirement of years ago.

During the campaign, Donald Trump, then president, accused Biden of wanting to “Take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything. Hurt the Bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns.” That’s a direct quote, but don’t even try to parse it.

To which Biden replied: “Like so many people, my faith has been the bedrock foundation of my life. …My faith has been a guiding light for me and a constant reminder of the fundamental dignity and humanity that God has bestowed upon all of us.”

Biden did not come about his position on abortion quickly or easily. His acceptance of the controversial issue has evolved over his more than 40 years in public office. He’s voted both for and against the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion. He supported a referendum of the states to repeal Roe v. Wade and he now supports Roe v. Wade as the law of the land.

Another faith-forward Catholic in high public office is Pelosi — third in the line of succession to the presidency — whose views on a woman’s right to choose mirror Biden’s as do her habitual practices of her Catholic faith. (Pelosi attended parochial and upper Catholic schools in her home town of Baltimore.) Presumably she would be subject to the same general denial of communion as the conservative bloc of prelates appears to be suggesting.

Six of the nine Supreme Court justices are practicing Catholics, and five of the six are identified as conservatives although Chief Justice John Roberts occasionally provides a swing vote.

Many recent polls show that a majority of Catholics ignore church teaching and believe that abortion, to one degree or another, should be a matter of individual choice and available to those who want it.

At the same time, polls show that church attendance has declined significantly as have the number of people who identify generally with religious beliefs. The prelates’ decision could further cleave the division between the church’s hierarchy and the faithful.

Abortion has long been a settled issue in Maryland. Following the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill in 1974 that legalized abortion. It was vetoed by Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) for legal insufficiency with the promise to adopt a sustainable law the following year (after he was safely reelected in 1974), which he did.

Maryland’s abortion law has survived numerous challenges over the nearly half century, including a voter referendum in 1992. Two Republican governors, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the incumbent, Larry Hogan, refused to engage in the abortion debate to placate conservative demands, saying the issue is settled business in Maryland. Hogan is Catholic, as is Former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), a supporter of abortion rights.

And most recently, the General Assembly established protections for Maryland’s abortion law against any action the Supreme Court might take to either weaken or repeal Roe v. Wade.

What the unforgiving eminences refuse to recognize or admit is that Biden is the ideal advertisement for churchgoing, what used to be called a “profession of faith.” His actions command attention.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.