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How election season turns a sacred Catholic ritual into a political weapon

Former Vice President Joe Biden has once again been denied communion by a Catholic priest

In this April 29, 2016, file photo, then-Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Pope Francis during a congress on the progress of regenerative medicine held at the Vatican.
Andrew Medichini, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — When Catholic priests deny communion to politicians who disobey church teaching, are they defending their faith or corrupting it?

This familiar question came up yet again this weekend when a South Carolina priest refused to serve former Vice President Joe Biden because of his political support for abortion rights.

“Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of church teaching,” said the Rev. Robert E. Morey to a local paper, the Florence Morning News, about the incident, noting that he’d keep Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate and lifelong Catholic who regularly attends Mass, in his prayers.

The Rev. Morey’s actions put him out of step with most Catholic leaders, who typically try to keep political battles from interfering with sacred rituals, according to John Gehring, Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that encourages religious leaders to get involved in political debates.

Even Pope John Paul II, who was particularly beloved by more conservative members of the church, served communion to the mayor of Rome, an abortion rights advocate, in 2001.

“The majority of priests and bishops recognize that the eucharist should not be used as a political weapon,” Gehring said, noting that they often believe refusing to serve communion to a politician does more harm than good.

“You don’t change minds and hearts. You don’t bring people into the church. You simply cause more division,” he said.

However, it’s still fair to say that priests denying — or at least threatening to deny — communion is a relatively common phenomenon during election season, Gehring added. Catholic Democrats often come under fire from religious leaders for arguing that the government shouldn’t restrict abortion rights.

“We really saw this (debate) flare up in the 2004 election when John Kerry ran for president,” he said. “There was a small but vocal minority of bishops ... who came out and said John Kerry would not be welcome for communion.”

Political reporters who covered Kerry’s campaign at the time carefully tracked whether priests turned him away. The situation became known as “wafer watch,” since wafers are used during the Catholic sacrament of communion.

Similarly, Biden faced a backlash from Catholic priests during his 2008 presidential campaign. Although Biden has said before that he personally does not support abortion, he’s also said that politicians shouldn’t tell women what to do with their bodies, according to The Washington Post.

Abortion isn’t the only topic that gets Catholic politicians in hot water. Last summer, one priest suggested that Catholic members of the Trump administration should face “canonical penalties,” which can include losing access to communion, because of family separation policies at the U.S.-Mexico border, Religion News Service reported.

“For the salvation of these people’s souls, maybe it’s time for us to look at canonical penalties,” Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, Arizona, reportedly told his fellow priests.

These calls for politicians to lose access to significant rituals are somewhat ridiculous given how common it is for Catholics to disagree with or disobey various aspects of church teaching, Gehring said. For example, nearly half of Catholics (48%) believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to Pew Research Center.

“Can you imagine if you started denying communion to everyone who denied church teaching?” Gehring asked.

In general, it’s up to individual Catholics to decide whether they’re worthy of receiving communion, since priests likely won’t be able to keep up with the activities of every member of their congregation.

“Ultimately, each person must consult their conscience before approaching communion. But it should be an informed conscience. When in doubt, it is best to talk it over with a priest or spiritual director,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who writes a column on Catholic life for Religion News Service.

If you’ve committed a “grave sin,” you must go to confession and address the sin before you’re “properly disposed” to take communion again, according to guidelines from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

When priests turn this sacred process into a political spectacle, it “really wounds the unity of the church,” Gehring said.