Joe Biden is a lifelong Roman Catholic, a commitment he has made public on numerous occasions across his long career in public service. He and his wife regularly attend Mass at a Catholic church in Greenville, Delaware.
However, he is also a strong supporter of abortion on demand. Earlier this year, he even reversed his support for the Hyde Amendment, legislation that bars federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or risk to a woman’s life.
When the presidential candidate was campaigning in South Carolina last weekend, he attended Sunday Mass at St. Anthony Catholic Church in the Diocese of Charleston. However, the priest later stated that he “had to refuse Holy Communion” to the former vice president. The priest explained: “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.”
Backlash was quick and severe. An Esquire article suggested, “Maybe the Catholic church should worry less about Joe Biden and more about the abuse of children.” A liberal group launched an online petition calling on South Carolina’s bishop to direct the priest to apologize to Biden and direct other priests in the state not to deny communion based on politics.
“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith”
Today is All Saints Day. As we noted yesterday, the term saints in the Bible applies to all Christians. Scripture teaches that we are all saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Frederick Buechner: “A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do” (his italics).
However, he adds: “There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.”
Why the priest withheld communion
Buechner is right: There is a divine-human partnership at the heart of the Christian life. God offers grace, but like any other gift, we must receive it to experience it. God offers forgiveness, but we must ask for it (1 John 1:9). God offers his “perfect” will, but we must choose to follow it (Romans 12:2).
This same balance applies to personal commitments and public accountability.
Joe Biden has the legal right to his opinion regarding abortion and the sanctity of life. However, neither he nor anyone else has the right to his own “truth.” As Patrick Moynihan famously stated, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
The fact is, the Roman Catholic Church has a clear and unambiguous position on abortion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” The Diocese of South Carolina specifically requires priests to withhold the Eucharist from politicians and political candidates who support abortion on demand.
And so, the priest who denied communion to Mr. Biden last Sunday was doing what his tradition instructs him to do.
Three vital principles
Here’s the larger lesson for us: holding people accountable to biblical truth is not an imposition of our personal preferences but an invitation to the life God can most fully bless.
Three biblical principles follow.
One: We must know, apply, and defend biblical truth rather than personal opinion. When I taught biblical interpretation as a seminary professor, I often told my students that the only word God is obligated to bless is his word (cf. Isaiah 55:10–11).
Two: It is urgent that the church hold Christians accountable for living by God’s word and will (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9–13). This responsibility extends beyond hot-button issues to the spectrum of biblical morality (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9–11). It is relevant to what we say but also to how we say it (Ephesians 4:15). If we will not hold each other to biblical standards, we lose the moral authority by which to speak to the secular culture (cf. 1 Peter 4:17).
Three: It is vital that we exercise accountability with the humility that recognizes our own fallibility (cf. James 4:6). I may not have committed your sins, but you may not have committed mine. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.
Courage that changed the world
Yesterday was not only Halloween but also Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517, a little-known monk named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This event is considered the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Luther would risk his life for the principles that empowered this re-formation of the church. Many others would die for them.
The great reformer noted: “You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.” But he added: “We are nothing with all our gifts be they ever so great, except God assist us.”
Will you ask God to assist you in using your gifts to speak the truth in love today?