Analysis: Archbishop Gregory says he won’t deny Biden communion. How will Catholics respond?

archbishop gregory Archbishop Wilton Gregory at a Mass celebrated at the Capital One Arena before the 2020 March for Life. / Peter Zelasko/CNA

Washington's archbishop, who will be made a cardinal this weekend, told a journalist Tuesday that in his diocese, he will not deny Holy Communion to a politician who has pledged to enshrine access to abortion in federal law and permit federal funding of abortions. That politician is President-elect Joe Biden.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory's comment is sure to raise questions about the Church's pro-life witness. But for some Catholics, the remark might also raise questions about the sincerity of U.S. bishops on the topic of ecclesial reform.

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Church's doctrinal office, told U.S. bishops in a memo that a Catholic politician "consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws" is engaged in "manifest" and "formal cooperation" in grave sin.

In such a case, the politician's "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 Catholic perseveres in grave sin and still presents himself for Holy Communion, "the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it."

Ratzinger's memo was an application of canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, which says that Catholics "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion."

In short, Ratzinger's memo gave bishops instruction on how to apply the Church's law. On Tuesday, Archbishop Gregory said he has no plans to do so.

Some Catholics will soon raise objections to Gregory's remark.

Pro-life activists will say bishops should stand up for the unborn, and that distributing the Eucharist to pro-choice politicians implies that abortion is not a serious moral issue. Some will accuse the archbishop of preferring secular approval to uncomfortable evangelical witness.

Those are exactly the arguments Catholics made when Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said in 2019 that he would not deny the Eucharist to New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed one of the most permissive abortion laws in the country's history, and again in October of that year, when Dolan said he would not deny Biden the Eucharist.

If history is predictive, other Catholics will praise Gregory as a witness of civility and tolerance. They will say that no one should politicize the Eucharist, and that denying Holy Communion is not pastoral, or prudent.

They will not be the first to use that language.

In 2004, when U.S. bishops discussed pro-choice politicians and the Eucharist, one cardinal among them was charged with summarizing the memo sent from Ratzinger to bishops on the subject, as few of them had yet received it. The cardinal downplayed the memo, saying addressing the matter at all was up to the discretion of U.S. bishops.

"The question for us is not simply whether denial of Communion is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent," the cardinal said.

That cardinal was Theodore McCarrick.

At the 2004 spring meeting of U.S. bishops, which took place in Denver, McCarrick inaccurately summarized the instructions of the Vatican on Holy Communion, omitting Ratzinger's normative direction. Under McCarrick's influence, the bishops decided the best way to handle the question was to defer to the individual judgement of bishops.

The memo, incidentally, was sent ahead of the meeting to two U.S. bishops: McCarrick, and the president of the U.S. bishops' conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory.

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In the wake of McCarrick's more recent scandal, pro-lifers will not be the only ones to lament Gregory's decision about Biden. Catholics concerned with ecclesial reform are also likely to have concerns.

Gregory is charged with leading the Archdiocese of Washington after the scandal of McCarrick, and in the wake of serious questions raised about his immediate predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl. The archbishop is charged with promoting healing, and enacting reform, and he's pledged to do so.

But his critics are likely to see his remarks on Biden as a setback to reform. Some will argue that Gregory has substituted his own judgment for the law of the Church, and the Vatican's instructions on how to apply it. That practice, they'll say, is the kind of clericalism that made the McCarrick scandal possible.

Gregory may not see that matter that way, or believe himself to be flouting canon 915. But if his priests think he is not taking seriously ecclesiastical law, his reform agenda may be seriously jeopardized.

Archbishop Jose Gomez said last week that a Biden presidency promises "certain challenges" for the bishops of the U.S. As Gregory wades into controversy over canon 915, the reach of those challenges may soon become apparent.

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