Ask Dr. Land: Should President Biden be described as 'devout' Catholic?

Question:  Should President Biden be described as a “devout” Catholic and should he receive communion?

(Photo: The Christian Post/Katherine T. Phan)
(Photo: The Christian Post/Katherine T. Phan)

I have decided to rush into territory where angels often fear to tread – commenting on a dispute in another faith tradition that is different than my own.  Let me state for the record that I am not a Roman Catholic.  Since the age of six and a half I have been a member of the Southern Baptist denomination and an ordained Southern Baptist minister since the age of 23.  Clearly, Baptists came out of the left-wing of the Reformation starting in Switzerland in the 16th century (circa 1525).

However, I do believe the question of whether President Biden should describe himself, or be described by others, as a “devout” Catholic when he is such an aggressive pro-abortion proponent is a valid and important one.  An even more important question is whether being such a pro-abortion proponent, he should be denied communion by a priest when he presents himself for communion.

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The most recent iteration of this controversy was ignited when Archbishop Joseph Naumann, the Chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Pro-Life Committee issued a statement declaring that President Biden should not describe himself as a “devout” Catholic because of his militant pro-abortion stance and agenda and made it clear that he believed that the President should not receive communion.   

Those of us in Protestant traditions need to remember that Catholicism is a sacramental faith and not being served communion has much more significance than in our traditions which view the Lord’s Supper as a memorial meal and an act of obedience, rather than conferring sacramental blessing. 

Perhaps it is best to let an undeniable expert on Roman Catholic doctrine address the issue.  The Roman Catholic Church teaches that abortion is “gravely contrary to the moral law.”  In 2004 then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later to become Pope Benedict XVI) sent a memo to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington D.C., delineating the issues that determined a person’s eligibility to receive communion.  The soon to be Pope Benedict writes:

“Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist."

In the memo the then Cardinal Ratzinger explains that when these measures have not had the desired effect, ”the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.”

Archbishop Naumann explained that President Biden is “acting contrary to church teaching...” and “the Bishops need to correct him, as the president is acting contrary to Catholic faith.”

Predictably, this has caused intense debate among American Catholics with competing petitions.  More liberal Catholics (Faithful America) are calling for Archbishop Naumann’s removal, while more traditional Catholics (Catholic Vote) are circulating a petition commending Archbishop Naumann’s actions.  The petition declares “[i]n publicly noting that the President’s unequivocal advocacy for abortion on demand makes him ineligible to receive Holy Communion, you have followed St. Paul’s directive to Timothy: ‘Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient, convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.  For whether it is convenient or inconvenient, convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.  For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:2-3).  We thank you for your courage in transmitting ‘sound doctrine’ and for your commitment to defending the most vulnerable among us.”

Pew has been polling Catholics on this issue.  Interestingly, the results are broken down along party lines, either Democrat or “leaning” Democrat vs. Republican, or “leaning” Republican.  Among the first group, 87% believe that President Biden should receive communion and among the latter group 55% of Republicans think he should not.   

Perhaps far more important for the future of Catholicism in the U.S., the Pew poll found that among Roman Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week, 42% believed Catholic politicians who disagree with the Church’s official position on abortion should be disqualified from the Eucharist.

It appears that the more devout a Catholic is, at least as defined by faithful church attendance, the more likely he or she is to agree with Archbishop Naumann.  This result is not surprising.

While there is considerable diversity of opinion among American Roman Catholics on the subject of abortion, the Church’s clear teaching on the issue is unequivocally pro-life and the magisterium of the Church would clearly see a pro-abortion position as out of sync with Church teaching.

And it must always be remembered that Roman Catholicism is not a democracy.  It has an ecclesiastical hierarchy that has real authority.

This debate over President Biden’s fitness to receive communion and whether he is a devout Catholic accentuates the hierarchical nature of Catholic authority, an authority the church leadership, at least in America, is to varying degrees uncomfortable exercising. After all, Catholic bishops have openly disagreed with Archbishop Naumann.

As I was reading of this controversy, I was reminded of a conversation I had back in 1992 with Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, at the time Archbishop of Chicago and the Chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s committee on fighting pornography. In conjunction with that effort several of us met with the Cardinal.  As we were sitting down to lunch at the Cardinal’s residence, he turned to me as I was seated immediately to his right.  He said “Richard, can’t you do anything about Clinton and Gore on abortion?”  At that time both Clinton and Gore were Southern Baptists.  I replied, “No Joe I can’t.  The only ecclesiastical authority in our tradition is the local church, and only their respective local churches could discipline them or take corrective action.”   I then added, “Can’t you do anything about Cuomo and Kennedy on abortion?  At least you have the ecclesiastical authority and machinery to do it.”   The Cardinal smiled a slight smile and said, “Touché Richard, touché.”  To me, this illustrated the Catholic hierarchy’s ambivalence about disciplining two of the most prominent Catholic politicians in the land, Senator Ted Kennedy and Governor Mario Cuomo, both of whom were way off the reservation of what was considered orthodox Catholic doctrine on the abortion issue.

It also brought back memories of when Pope John Paul II first became Pope and he told the sisters to wear their habits and instructed Catholic priests who had strayed into political office to return to their priestly duties. Shortly after that I ran into my good friend George Weigel who would later write a compelling biography of Pope John Paul II.  I said, “George, you guys finally have a Pope who knows how to ‘pope,’ meaning he took his authority seriously and used it to enforce traditional Catholicism."  George told me later that when he related this story to the Pope, John Paul II threw his head back and gave a hearty belly laugh.

Seriously, one of the things that has in the past, and continues in the present, to attract to Catholicism is its emphasis on tradition in our ever changing world, with so many religious traditions trying their hardest to reflect changing values in society in chameleon-like fashion.  By contrast Roman Catholics remain the same

One of the highlights of my three year sojourn in Oxford in the mid-1970’s  was getting to spend an entire Sunday afternoon with Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist, essayist and general curmudgeon of British intellectual life for much of the last half of the 20th century.  Muggeridge had been an agnostic and libertine as a young man and a profound admirer of communism until he lived in the Soviet Union for a brief period in the 1930’s which disimbued him of admiration for communism.  After the second World War Muggeridge became a Christian and a well-spoken, witty and sharp tongued defender of the faith much influenced by Mother Teresa.

In 1982, at the age of 79, Muggeridge rocked the Christian world by leaving the Church of England and becoming a Roman Catholic.  He had obviously become frustrated with the ever changing face of modern Anglicanism.  When asked why he would join the Roman church at this late stage in his life he replied, “they don’t change!”  This stability, this staunch loyalty to the ancient teachings of the Catholic church have tremendous appeal to many people.  As a Baptist, I reject many of their teachings.  But I do understand the appeal of long traditions that don’t change and the comforting stability it provides many of its adherents. 

The modern Roman Catholic Church should thus be wary of introducing any genuflections to “majority views” in a particular culture lest they lose the appeal of their never changing traditions and the fact that “they don’t change.”

The cautionary tale for those who would be tempted to change traditional teaching to accommodate the modern zeitgeist is contemporary Methodism, which has pursued social relevance to the point of being so amorphous that they defy meaningful theological definition.  I would challenge anyone to give a one paragraph definition of Methodist theology that is both accurate and comprehensive.  Trying to define contemporary Methodism is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree.  Those tempted by the enchantment of cultural relevance should be wary of the stark example provided by modern Methodism.  

Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches. He is the author of The Divided States of America, Imagine! A God Blessed America, Real Homeland Security, For Faith & Family and Send a Message to Mickey.

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