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If You Support Abortion Rights, You Might Soon Lose Communion — Even If You're Joe Biden

US President Joe Biden (C) and First Lady Jill Biden (L) speaks with a priest as they leave St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware, June 19, 2021. U.S. Roman Catholic bishops issued a challenge on June 18 to President Biden over his support for abortion rights, agreeing to draft a statement on the meaning of holy communion which could potentially be used to deny the sacred rite to the U.S. leader. (Olivier DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden (C) and First Lady Jill Biden (L) speaks with a priest as they leave St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware, June 19, 2021. U.S. Roman Catholic bishops issued a challenge on June 18 to President Biden over his support for abortion rights, agreeing to draft a statement on the meaning of holy communion which could potentially be used to deny the sacred rite to the U.S. leader. (Olivier DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

So the U.S.’s Catholic bishops will draft guidelines, for debate this November, on when the faithful should be denied the Eucharist.

Good.

After unhinged clergy helped incite January’s insurrection — which was awash in Christian symbols -- by preaching partisan, profanity-laced poison, traitors urging or committing violence should not receive what we Catholics consider the body of Christ.

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Oh, wait — the bishops aren’t targeting terrorists and those who goad them, but rather the president of the United States and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights?

It would be tempting to channel an iconic Saturday Night Live character and say “never mind.” Actually, that response is appropriate in a way the bishops don’t intend: Never mind the antics of their conference’s kooky corner. Putting aside the Catholic right's defective moral math (terminating a pregnancy=unforgivable; fascist violence against democracy=we can live with it), the episcopal right is blowing smoke, and not the kind from an incense burner. It has lost the culture war.

The pandemic’s easing has meant the joy of returning to in-person attendance at my church and hearing my pastor say my name while offering “the body of Christ.” It’s communion with the divine and with my faith community. Joe Biden’s dismissive reaction when asked if he’s worried about losing that privilege — “I don’t think that’s going to happen.” — is well-founded. A parishioner’s bishop, or the pope, has the final word on whether he receives communion, and Washington’s archbishop has made plain he has no intention of blocking Biden’s walk to the altar rail.

As for the pope, Francis warned the American bishops, some of whom couldn’t bother policing pedophilia, not to play Eucharist cop. Hardliners aren’t only out of step with the Vatican; many lay Catholics reject their positions on issues from homosexuality to contraception to, yes, abortion.

It’s not that I share Biden’s abortion views. I mostly side with the Church’s stance, which follows on the simple biology summarized by the honest pro-choicer who wrote that abortion “kills an unborn baby.” But too many on my bench are blind to this debate’s morally ambiguous shadows — how most women contemplating abortion grapple painfully with conflicted conscience — as if this were an open-and-shut wrong on a par with, say, white supremacy and its lethal violence, in Charlottesville, Georgia, Minneapolis and, on Jan. 6, the capital.

Racism’s guns, hit-and-runs, and knees on necks aren’t the only rejections of Church teaching that right-leaning bishops seem to deem insufficiently awful. Why not deny the Eucharist to Catholics who support the death penalty, which Francis called “inadmissible”? What about xenophobes and Scrooges who brush aside the Church’s welcome for immigrants and endorsement of the safety net? Why the fixation on abortion?

What about xenophobes and Scrooges who brush aside the Church’s welcome for immigrants and endorsement of the safety net? Why the fixation on abortion?

Simple. While the termination of a pregnancy involves incandescent moral questions, it also, to state the obvious, involves sex. And as the former priest-turned-author James Carroll persuasively argues, patrolling the boundaries of sex is one pillar of clericalism, the Church’s culture of priestly privilege and power. Restricting the clergy’s ranks by gender is another pillar.

Clericalism isn’t a bogeyman haunting only ex-priests like Carroll; my pastor has preached against it as well, with good reason. The pedophile scandal was clericalism’s catastrophic fallout. Parents admitted predators into their homes, or sent their children into the dens of churches and rectories, because they trusted men whose collars, they wrongly believed, inoculated them against human vice. What San Diego’s bishop aptly calls the “weaponization of Eucharist” against pro-choicers, therefore, is more than hypocritical disregard of other dissents from Church teaching. It props up this unhealthy cult of the almighty priest.

“The fact that Mr. Biden’s views on abortion are even a matter of public discussion is already a victory for conservative Catholics,” the New York Times reported. Actually, the fact that presidential views on just about anything are up for discussion reflects a victory for a free society. Conservative Catholics’ real victories are found elsewhere, with one escaping their notice.

To wit, the whining about pro-choicers receiving communion overlooks the great leeway states have received — and exercised — to restrict abortion in the last 30 years. Red ones have revved their statutory engines to make the procedure all but unavailable in places. Should the Supreme Court strike down Roe v. Wade, it would merely codify states’ authority over the matter.

A second conservative victory affects Catholics. As James Carroll notes, even Pope Francis can’t break the chains of the clericalism mindset. The enduring hit to the Church’s moral authority from the sex abuse scandal is, for now, the only operative restraint on that mindset, reminding Catholic laity and everyone else that men in black are just that: men only, not the God who infuses the Eucharist.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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