US Bishops Meet This Week; Weigh In On Biden Communion Debate

Semi-annual meeting to be held virtually and will be available live online

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will offer a final approval of their statement on what it means to receive the Eucharist this week in their semi-annual meeting. The focus may be regarding concerns of whether President Joseph Biden can continue to receive the Eucharist in a Catholic Mass in light of his support for abortion.

On May 1st, which in the Catholic Church is the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone released the statement Before I Formed You in the Womb I Knew You. He outlines a scientific understanding of human fetal development, Catholic moral teaching on abortion, and then applies his teaching to those who can and cannot receive the Eucharist in his diocese.

Governing Structure of the Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church structure is similar to the United States local and federal governments. There are church-wide mandates but every bishop who heads a diocese has free reign over various practices and rules within his jurisdiction. In South Carolina, a bishop encourages priests not to give the Eucharist to those deemed unable to receive it and one priest publicly refused the then former vice-president from receiving the host. On the other side of Virginia, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Archbishop of Washington, will not prevent the president from receiving the Eucharist when he attends Mass in his archdiocese. In Boston, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop, prohibits refusing someone communion who presents themselves in the communion line.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is a governing advisory body of the Catholic Church in the United States but its full jurisdiction ends at the border of every diocese. Archbishop Cordileone preceded any national debate with his May 1st declaration within the confines of his jurisdiction. Clearly, it may be used as a model for the upcoming discussion at the Bishops’ meeting next month.

Who possesses the right to life?

Framing the issue in the basis for all social teaching in the Catholic Church — the dignity of the human person — Archbishop Cordileone writes the scientific understanding of the origin of the human being. He teaches the human begins to exist at conception and at that moment possesses a unique dignity. He also cites natural law and the Declaration of Independence.

Who possesses the right to life? The natural law teaches, and the Declaration proclaims, that every human being possesses the dignity that forms the foundation of these unalienable rights.

The archbishop then lays out his argument for denying the Eucharist to pro-abortion politicians. Citing why Catholics oppose abortion from a civil standpoint, he writes:

We are all called to oppose abortion because we acknowledge the human being’s right to life, the unique human identity of each living, developing embryo from the moment of conception, and the horrendous violence of the [abortion] procedure itself.

He then explains the religious standpoint:

We share with others the conviction that human dignity is innate; but we also believe it is of inestimable value. Our Savior has taught us that the two great commandments are to love God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Archbishop Cordileone continues in the second section of the letter to lay out how promoting legislation in support of abortion is cooperating in moral evil. He writes the legalizing of abortion caused what was a family or community issue to become a problem for the woman herself.

Formerly, a woman who found herself with child in difficult circumstances relied on family, friends, and religious and social service organizations for support and assistance; there was a sense of shared responsibility. And, very often the father of the child recognized his responsibility for the situation and would respond accordingly. Now, the contraceptive culture has changed all that: the pregnancy has become “her problem.” She should have prevented it from happening, and now she alone has to make the problem go away.

He adds that the communal assistance available before abortion was legalized becomes communal cooperation in the abortion.

This sad state of affairs brings me to my second point: abortion is never solely the mother’s act. Others, to a greater or lesser degree, share culpability whenever this evil is perpetrated.

Formal and material, immediate and mediate cooperation

The Bay Area prelate then explains the Catholic moral teaching on abortion by defining formal and material cooperation and immediate and mediate moral cooperation.

He begins by addressing the difference between immediate cooperation and mediate cooperation in light of the idea that one can be personally opposed to abortion but still legislate for it.

In the case of abortion, for example, if a person does not want the woman to have an abortion but still assists in the procedure, this is immediate material cooperation. If this person does not participate in the act itself, but helps with preparation or follow-up, the cooperation is mediate . . . Immediate material cooperation in a grave evil can never be morally justified: the person is guilty of participating in the evil act, even if he or she believes the action is wrong.

Without naming the doctrine, he explains what in Catholic circles is known as the principle of double-effect. First explained in the eighteenth century by St. Alphonsus of Liguori, the principle addresses those situations that come up in which one has an intention of doing good but in the process, an unintended but clearly foreseen moral evil may also occur.

The cable car problem

The classic scenario for San Francisco is the cable car problem. Wikipedia has a great explanation of it what it calls the trolley problem.

There is a runaway cable car that must be stopped. You see it coming and there is a switch before you which can divert the cable car onto another track. There are five people unaware and unable to be alerted on the upcoming tracks. If you hit the switch there is one person unaware and unable to be alerted on that track.

Do you do nothing and allow the cable car to kill the five people or do you hit the switch and allow the cable car to kill one person?[1]

The archbishop uses this principle in regard to abortion:

Here again, we see the twin bases of moral discernment: the act itself, and the intention of the one performing it. As to the first, the greater the gravity of the wrongdoing, the more serious must be the reason for the material cooperation to be licit. As to the second, the greater the gravity of the wrongdoing, the more remote must the cooperation be if it is to be morally permissible . . . a legislator who votes for a parental consent law: even though the law presupposes the legality of abortion itself, this law restricts access to this evil somewhat, and the legislator could judge that this good offers a justification for mediate material cooperation.

He then defines what is morally unacceptable in all circumstances which is any participation in an abortion including

*Encouraging the mother to have an abortion

*paying for it

*donating to organizations that provide abortions

*supporting candidates or legislation for the purpose of making abortion a more readily available “choice”.

Cordileone says “are all cooperating with a very serious evil. Formal cooperation and immediate material cooperation in evil is never morally justified.”

Who can and cannot receive the Eucharist in San Francisco

The archbishop of San Francisco explains in light of the issues above who can and cannot receive the Eucharist in the parishes under his jurisdiction

To receive the Blessed Sacrament in the Catholic liturgy is to espouse publicly the faith and moral teachings of the Catholic Church, and to desire to live accordingly. We all fall short in various ways, but there is a great difference between struggling to live according to the teachings of the Church and rejecting those teachings.

He then defines legislators who promote abortion to be in immediate formal co-operation and must refrain from receiving the Eucharist.

In the case of public figures who profess to be Catholic and promote abortion, we are not dealing with a sin committed in human weakness or a moral lapse: this is a matter of persistent, obdurate, and public rejection of Catholic teaching. This adds an even greater responsibility to the role of the Church’s pastors in caring for the salvation of souls.

He requires that if a person refuses private counsel on his or her support of abortion then a person must be publicly called to refrain from the Eucharist:

When other avenues are exhausted, the only recourse a pastor has left is the public medicine of temporary exclusion from the Lord’s Table. This is a bitter medicine, but the gravity of the evil of abortion can sometimes warrant it. Speaking for myself, I always keep before me the words from the prophet Ezekiel: “When I say to the wicked, ‘You wicked, you must die,’ and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood” (Ez 33:8). I tremble that if I do not forthrightly challenge Catholics under my pastoral care who advocate for abortion, both they and I will have to answer to God for innocent blood.

Other bishops weigh in

The issue is a hot one in the Catholic Church and one that puts the Catholic president and some of the Catholic bishops on track for a collision.

Some bishops are afraid that if the president of the United States can receive the Eucharist while advocating for abortion then Catholics will see it as permissible.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann, Chair of the bishops Pro-Life Committee laments to the Catholic World Report:

“I think he was acting on and following his conscience. I believe the president has the responsibility not to present himself for Holy Communion. When Catholics receive the Eucharist, they are acknowledging the Real Presence of Jesus, and also belief in the teachings of the Church. President Biden doesn’t believe in the Church’s teachings on the Sanctity of Human Life, and he should not put the priest in the situation where he has to decide whether or not to allow him to receive the Eucharist. He should know that after 78 years as a Catholic.” [2]

He explained to the AP:

“He doesn’t have the authority to teach what it means to be Catholic — that’s our responsibility as bishops,” Naumann said, “Whether intentional or not, he’s trying to usurp our authority.”[3]

Others such as Bishop Stowe, O.FM. Conv. of Lexington, Kentucky and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego are concerned that censuring President Biden will politicize the Eucharist.

Bishop McElroy warns against the USCCB embracing the position that the San Francisco archbishop already took in his archdiocese. He writes in America Magazine, a Jesuit publication:

Fully half the Catholics in the United States will see this action as partisan in nature, and it will bring the terrible partisan divisions that have plagued our nation into the very act of worship that is intended by God to cause and signify our oneness.[4]

The archbishop emeritus of St. Louis now serving in Rome, Cardinal Raymond Burke the patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, said that not only should pro-abortion politicians and others not present themselves for communion, they should be denied by the priest if they do.

Speaking to Thomas McKenna, founder of Catholic Action for Faith and Family, Burke stated to receive communion in the state of sin knowingly is a sacrilege. “In order to prevent the commission of a sacrilege we have to insist such people not approach receive Holy Communion,” he said. Burke added that Biden may be in the state of apostasy which is penalized through ex-communication. [5]

He says the issue is not political but of safeguarding the souls of the faithful. “In my judgment, it sees politicians who are using the sacrament for political ends.” [6]

Earlier this month, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, sent a letter to Archbishop José Gomez, president of the USCCB advising caution.

Vatican News reported:

However, Cardinal Ladaria acknowledged that some of the principles contained in the letter assist the US Bishops in the drafting of the document, but they “should only be discussed in the context of the CDF’s authoritative Doctrinal note of 2002: “On some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life.” He further noted that the text predates Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter and provides “the teaching of the Magisterium on the theological foundation for any initiative regarding the question of the worthy reception of Holy Communion.”[7]

One key figure who may be watched closely will be Archbishop Christopher Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. He will be the first to address the meeting as Pope Francis’ personal and official representative both to the Church in the United States and to its Government.

The result of the discussion in Washington will play itself out between bishops leaning towards McElroy’s position warning against politicizing the Eucharist and Burke’s calling for the ex-communication of pro-choice legislators. Archbishop Cordileone may have given a preview of the final document, how it will be implemented in each diocese remains to be seen.


[2]Abp. Naumann: Pres. Biden “should stop defining himself as a devout Catholic”, Catholic World Report, Feb 13, 2021

[3] Crary, David, US Catholic bishops may press Biden to stop taking Communion, AP, April 28, 2021

[4] McElroy, Bishop Robert, The Eucharist is being weaponized for political ends. This must not happen. America Magazine, May 5, 2021

[5] Conversations with Cardinal Burke March 2021


[7] Vatican News, Cardinal Ladaria to US Bishops: Debate on Communion and abortion should not lead to division, May 12, 2021

This article was updated on May 17