At their June meeting, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to finalize a teaching on the Eucharist that will include the disciplinary action of withholding the sacrament from Catholic politicians who are unwilling to take a public stand against Roe v. Wade. The bishops will vote at their November meeting on the teaching they issue. Although their concerned rhetoric in debate last week was directed at “Catholic politicians,” it is clear that their disciplinary action is leveled at Joe Biden, the second Roman Catholic president of the United States. How times have changed. I was only nine years old when John F. Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic president in 1960, but I can recall vividly the deep pride that Catholics, still tied to the sensibilities of an immigrant Church, felt at his election to high office. Now, a rather large swath of the American bishops feel no such pride at the election of our second Catholic president. Instead, they seem intent on making him a negative example to the American Catholic faithful. This initiative is especially striking because President Biden is a practicing Catholic, a palpably good man who speaks readily about how his deep faith has been a source of comfort in facing the tragedies that have beset his life. One might think in a time when Catholics have left the Church in droves—so many in disgust at the astonishing moral failure of bishops to protect children from priestly predators—that the election of a Catholic president who wears his piety on his sleeve would be a moment to celebrate in the American Catholic Church. Instead, the bishops—or, to make a fair distinction, a surprising number of them—make Biden their target with the same single-mindedness as the right-wing ideologues on the Fox News evening line-up.
To refuse the Eucharist to a believing Catholic, to excommunicate him at least sacramentally, is to brand him a grievous sinner who by virtue of his sin has alienated himself from the Church. In the judgment of the bishops, Biden’s sin seems to be that, as a Catholic politician, he has not taken a public, political stand against abortion. Biden has stated many times that he considers abortion to be a moral evil. This is his Catholic belief. But, like many Catholics who believe the same, he finds that his personal belief conflicts with the beliefs of other citizens and with the law in a democracy that affirms the First Amendment. Moreover, Biden affirms a woman’s right to make her own choices regarding reproduction, even if he personally believes that some of these choices, however tragically contextualized, might be choices for moral evil. As I noted, many American Catholics hold the same position as Biden, as, I should say, do I. In many respects, this position is informed both by Catholic belief and by a recognition that one lives in a constitutional republic in which a dizzying pluralism of often conflicting beliefs is protected by a political contract responsible for what order American society offers its citizens. So, one might ask, why would the bishops make Biden’s political stance on abortion, and not his personal belief about the evil of abortion, a grievous sin worthy of their proposed action? And, given that Biden’s political stance on abortion is one held by millions of American Catholics—lay people, clergy, and perhaps even a number of bishops—why would the bishops make Biden’s stance on abortion a grievous sin worthy of his separation from the sacramental community? I propose that the Donatist controversy of the fourth and fifth centuries can shed some light on our present, troubling moment. I will explain this controversy about the nature of the Church briefly so that it can serve its illustrative purpose here.