If, after a conversation about the Church’s teaching on human life, they were “still unwilling to act accordingly then I simply had to tell them ‘you may not present yourselves for Holy Communion,’” the cardinal explained.
Burke’s comments drew from canons 915 and 916 of the Code of Canon Law, which explain that a person conscious of grave sin should not approach Holy Communion without first making a sacramental confession, and that Catholics “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”
Among U.S. bishops, disagreement over the meaning of the canon, and its application to pro-choice Catholic politicians, has been ongoing since John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Church’s doctrinal office, wrote a memorandum to the U.S. Catholic bishops, explaining the application of canon 915 to the question of pro-choice politicians.
The case of a Catholic politician who is “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” would constitute “formal cooperation” in grave sin that is “manifest,” the letter explained.
In such cases, “his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist,” Ratzinger wrote.
If the individual perseveres in grave sin and still presents himself for Holy Communion, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.”
Shortly after Ratzinger wrote that memo, the U.S. bishops agreed the application of those norms should be decided by individual bishops, rather than by the bishops’ conference, largely under the influence of Theodore McCarrick, then-Archbishop of Washington, who paraphrased the letter, which was not yet publicly available, but did not present it in its entirety to the bishops.
Some bishops have prohibited politicians advocating for “permissive abortion laws” from receiving communion, but others have demurred, or said outright they would not deny such politicians the Eucharist.
Asked by a journalist, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said in October that he would not deny Biden Holy Communion. Before that, in January 2019, Dolan had said that he would not deny the Eucharist to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed into law one of the most permissive abortion laws in the country’s history.
Biden’s own shepherd, Bishop William Malooly, has said in the past that he does not want to “politicize” Holy Communion by denying it to politicians. Washington, D.C.’s ordinary, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, has said that the Eucharist should be denied only as a last resort, and is not on record as ever having done so.
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Biden was in October 2019 denied the Eucharist at a South Carolina parish.
“Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church. Our actions should reflect that. Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching,” Fr. Robert Morey, pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church in the Diocese of Charleston, told CNA after Biden was denied Holy Communion.
CNA reported after Biden was denied Holy Communion that the policy of the Charleston diocese requires priests to withhold the sacrament from politicians and political candidates who support legal protection for abortion.
“Catholic public officials who consistently support abortion on demand are cooperating with evil in a public manner. By supporting pro-abortion legislation they participate in manifest grave sin, a condition which excludes them from admission to Holy Communion as long as they persist in the pro-abortion stance,” says a 2004 decree signed jointly by the bishops of Atlanta, Charleston, and Charlotte.
In the interview released this week, Burke responded to those who say that Catholics ought not judge the interior dispositions of pro-choice poltiicians, among them Fr. James Martin, SJ, who was mentioned specifically by McKenna.
“We judge people on the basis of objective facts. On their actions, their public record, their public statements, and certainly, Vice President Biden hasn’t left any doubt in anyone’s mind what his position is. He clearly knows what the Church’s teaching is,” Burke said.