With the Democratic Party’s nomination of Joe Biden as its presidential candidate, some members of our Church have decided to make his Catholic faith an issue in the electoral campaign. This is quite a switch. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran for president as the Democratic candidate, it was prominent Protestant ministers like Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham who made an electoral issue out of Kennedy’s faith—not his fellow Catholics, most of whom were proud to have a co-religionist nominated for president after years of anti-Catholic prejudice.
But in 2020, some of Joe Biden’s fellow Catholics are instead using his faith against him, apparently as a vote-getting tactic for his opponent. They are publicly disparaging Biden as somehow unworthy of full membership in our Church. They claim that he is not a very good Catholic and that he may not receive Holy Communion at Mass, presumably because of the “pro-choice” political views of the Democratic Party.
Since these are Catholics dealing with the faith of another Catholic, the Church’s law governs their actions, and that law has a few things to say about this issue. Canon 220 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law says, “No one is permitted to harm illegitimately the good reputation which a person possesses nor to injure the right of any person to protect his or her own privacy.” Under canon law, every Catholic is guaranteed a right to their good name in the Church and a right to their privacy.
The condition of a fellow Catholic’s soul is a purely personal matter, not one for public debate. The injunction of Canon 220 would seem, in itself, to forbid Catholics from engaging in a public discussion of the tenor of Biden’s Catholicism and his ability to receive the Eucharist. These are private matters, not political ones.
Canon 220 is not the only canon law that affects the claims that Biden’s Catholic critics make against him. Canon 205 says that to be a good Catholic, in full communion with the Church, one must be baptized and joined to the Church by sharing the same faith, the same sacraments, and the same ecclesiastical governance. There is absolutely nothing in the public record to indicate that Biden is not baptized or that he does not accept the Church’s teachings, its sacraments, and its ecclesiastical governance. As he himself has said numerous times, his Catholic faith is part of his DNA. But, Biden’s Catholic detractors claim, he does not accept the Church’s teachings on the immorality of abortion. Check the public record. Biden has never said that, not once; and it is standard Catholic moral theology that there is a difference between the morality of an act and the morality of a law that allows an act.
Another problem with Biden’s Catholic political opponents publicly declaring that he is not a good Catholic is that this is not their judgment to make. Jurisdiction in our Church is territorial. Under Canon 107, §1, a Catholic gets their proper pastor and bishop by virtue of where they live. If someone is to opine authoritatively on Biden’s status under Canon 205, these pastors are the only ones authorized by canon law to do so, and in Biden’s case, they have not. (Of course, the pope, who has universal jurisdiction under Canon 331, could do so as well, but he has not spoken on this subject either.)
Then there is the assertion that Biden is not eligible to receive the Eucharist at Mass. This line of reasoning is based on an interpretation of Canon 915 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which says, “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” Here, Biden’s critics are relying on the second clause, about those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin not being admitted to Communion.