When Catholic bishops threatened to deny Communion to then-presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 over his abortion stance, the ensuing media frenzy was described as “haunting” the Democrat’s campaign for months.
But this year, when Vice President Joe Biden was denied Communion at a Catholic church in South Carolina for roughly the same reasons, coverage barely lasted a week.
According to experts, the practice — at least as a political statement if not a theological one — may be played out.
“The challenge of Catholics who campaign for policies that violate fundamental Catholic teaching is real, but not new, nor confined to abortion,” John Carr, director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, said in an email. “Refusing communion for public positions was widely discussed and rejected by almost all bishops and pastors years ago.”
Indeed, denying Communion may have lost some of its shock value in today’s political climate, where avoiding Eucharistic rejection has become a normalized part of campaigns for many Catholic politicians. In a world where U.S. Catholics have long accepted ideological divides on abortion — and where many Catholic officials decline to discuss the topic of Communion refusal — the once deeply controversial practice appears to be more theological curiosity than campaign killer.
The latest chapter in a long-simmering Catholic Communion controversy began last month when the Rev. Robert Morey at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Florence, South Carolina, rebuked Biden, a Catholic.
“Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching,” Morey said in a statement sent to Religion News Service. “As a priest, it is my responsibility to minister to those souls entrusted to my care, and I must do so even in the most difficult situations.”
When Biden was asked about the incident by MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell on Oct. 29, he declined to discuss it.
“That’s just my personal life and I am not going to get into that at all,” Biden said. His campaign also did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Morey’s actions were the latest iteration of a debate that dates back to at least Kerry’s 2004 White House bid, when then-Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis and others threatened to deny Communion to the then-Massachusetts senator because of his support for abortion rights. The mere possibility caused a media stir: Reporters packed the back pews of churches Kerry visited to take Communion, a trend some referred to as “Wafer Watch” — a reference to wafers used in many Catholic Communion services.
A former advance staffer from the Kerry campaign who asked to remain anonymous told RNS that vetting churches ahead of Kerry’s visits became standard practice at the time. The person said it was often a “delicate process” that involved in-person conversations with local priests.
It’s an open question whether denying Communion was ever popular among American prelates. According to The New York Times, a 2004 survey of Catholic bishops found that of the 154 who responded to the poll, 135 said they did not agree with denying anyone the Eucharist.
Even so, the threat of denying the holy host to politicians persisted. In 2013, Burke — then a cardinal and head of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court at the Vatican — declared that Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, should be denied Communion because of her abortion stance. And in June of this year, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois called on local churches to deny Communion to lawmakers who had voted for statutory protection for abortion rights in the state.
Asked if Paprocki would also call on churches to deny Communion to Biden, diocesan spokesman Andrew Hansen said that “if we do learn that (Biden) plans on visiting, we will address the question of Holy Communion at that time.”
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Source: Religion News Service