In a little more than a month, Joe Biden will become only the second Catholic to serve as president of the United States. It has not been an easy road for a Catholic to ascend to the presidency of the United States. It was still an open question in the presidential campaign of 1960. John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic nominated by either party since the disastrous defeat of Al Smith in 1928. Kennedy was dogged by questions on the campaign trail concerning whether his loyalty lay with the Vatican or the United States. In September of 1960, Kennedy made a historic speech in front of a group of Protestant ministers in Houston to answer the charge of dual loyalties. Kennedy said, “ … I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the Church does not speak for me.” Historians believe those words helped JFK become our first Catholic president. Sixty years later, the Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia is raising questions about whether an observant Catholic can properly serve as our president.
Former Archbishop Charles Chaput, writing in FIRST THINGS on Dec. 4, is of the opinion that President-elect Joe Biden should be denied the sacrament of Holy Communion. His reasoning is based upon Biden’s political support for Roe v. Wade. Biden is also on record as supporting the codifying of the right to choose into federal law. Chaput claims that his position is “pastoral not political.” But Chaput is either naïve or disingenuous. What else is the threat to withhold Communion to a practicing Catholic, but an attempt at political intimidation? Only through receiving Communion may a Catholic be in a state of grace. Only by being in a state of grace may a Catholic ascend into heaven. What better way to get the Catholic Biden’s attention? The denial of Communion — if carried out — could raise into question the ability of a Catholic to enforce the laws of the nation. And as such becomes a subject that concerns all of us, not just the Church.
It’s important to note that Chaput’s opinion is just that — an opinion. Neither Biden’s pastor in his home parish nor his soon-to-be pastor in D.C. agrees with Chaput. Pope Francis has not publicly commented. Chaput is entitled to his opinion, but even if unintentionally, he revives the specter of dual loyalty when it comes to a Catholic performing his duties as president.
What is Chaput’s intention in writing the article? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that he is signaling not only Biden but other Catholics with national political ambitions that support for Roe v. Wade will cost them their immortal souls? The same threat was made by a Church official against Catholic John Kerry when he ran for president. And before Kerry, against the late Mario Cuomo when he was once considered a serious candidate for the presidency.
In effect, Chaput has turned JFK’s argument for separating personal religious beliefs from presidential duties on its head. Despite his retirement, Chaput remains an influential voice among conservatives in the Church. His position highlights the moral conundrum faced by the Church in America, where the separation of Church and State is enshrined in our Constitution. It also highlights whether being anti-abortion is more important than anything else when evaluating the fitness of a person for high office. There’s an inescapable irony in ignoring the very-much-flawed character of our current president — giving him a pass — because he supports the overthrow of Roe v. Wade.
Are presidential actions such as waging a costly war for non-existent weapons of mass destruction to be ignored? How about the willful lies that led to a lack of preparation for a pandemic that has already caused several hundred thousand deaths and counting? Is the character of a serial philanderer to be discounted? How about the abandonment of our Kurdish allies to slaughter for callous political reasons? How do we assess the enormity of the separation of migrant children from their families and placing them in cages — something Pope Francis has labeled as “cruelty in its highest form”? Does such cruelty and immorality count less because it occurred outside the womb? Is there some kind of religious point system that determines which transgressions count more than others? Are those of you who don’t practice Catholicism wrong in expecting our leaders to enforce the nation’s laws without threat of religious retribution and eternal damnation from their religious leaders?
If we blur the lines between Church and State, we should be careful what we wish for. If we do so, both institutions will suffer. Our Founding Fathers were especially aware of that danger when they arrived in the new land. There are reasons the lines of demarcation were drawn.
I have no doubt that Joe Biden, like John Kennedy before him, will defend our Constitution. Biden understands that when his duties as president diverge from the dictates of his Church, his presidential duties must prevail. Even if Charles Chaput is confused about that.
We’re not about to return to the bad old days in America — the days when being a Catholic was thought to be disqualifying in serving as president of the United States. Not now. Not ever.
Follow Tom Cardella on Facebook.