The question roiling the Catholic Church: Who’s a good Catholic?

Source: The Hill

On Oct. 29, President Biden held a 75-minute meeting with Pope Francis. The two heads of state discussed the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to poor countries, the plight of refugees and the climate crisis. But their encounter was also uniquely pastoral. The pope blessed Biden’s rosary beads and assured the second Catholic U.S. president that he is “a good Catholic.” This resonated with the devout Biden, who keeps a picture of Pope Francis prominently displayed in the Oval Office and regularly attends Catholic mass. 

But ever since Joe Biden’s election, the U.S. Catholic bishops have been anything but reassuring as to Biden’s state of grace. On Inauguration Day, Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), issued a scathing indictment: “Our new president has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”

Immediately, a divisive debate began as to whether Biden should present himself for Holy Communion. At the USCCB meeting in June, several bishops proposed that Biden, along with other pro-choice Catholic politicians, be turned away at the altar.

Pope Francis has made his views crystal clear. Returning from a trip to Slovenia in September, the Pope emphatically said, “I have not denied Communion to anyone!” At their October meeting, the pope told Biden that he should keep receiving Communion, prompting EWTN commentator Raymond Arroyo to tweet that the pope’s statement “goes against his own U.S. bishops on this (and Canon law).” Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin was especially caustic: “Where are the John the Baptists who will confront the Herods of our day?” 

As the bishops gather this month to once more address the subject, a proposed draft document does not mention either Biden or abortion. Instead, it calls upon Catholics to understand that Holy Communion is the spiritual and physical connection to Jesus Christ. Transubstantiation – i.e., the conversion of bread and wine during mass into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ – is a church tenet that few Catholics either understand or believe. In a 2019 Pew Research poll, 69 percent of Catholics said the bread and wine on the altar are “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ;” only 31 percent believed they are the actual body and blood of Jesus. This should be a teaching moment.

But the ongoing emphasis of some bishops to deny pro-choice Catholic politicians Holy Communion raises a fundamental question: Who is a good Catholic? Is a Catholic who supported Biden in 2020 (including this columnist) a good Catholic? Is a Catholic supporter of Donald Trump a good Catholic? Is a married gay Catholic school teacher a good Catholic?

Pope Francis has implicitly answered these questions. In 2013, responding to a question about homosexuals, the Pope said, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

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