Who besides Joe Biden is engaged in a fruitless search for bipartisanship in this fractious world of ours? It’s Pope Francis, who has pledged himself to “building bridges, not walls” since moving into a modest room at the Vatican instead of the the gold-encrusted Papal Apartments, ditching the Mercedes Popemobiles for a Jeep Wrangler, to signal a return to the church’s pastoral mission to serve the least among us. His papacy has also been an effort to turn away from politics and what he called the “obsession” of some Catholics with “abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods” which “do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”
He got more specific last week when he warned bishops not to “politicize the Eucharist” as they were threatening to do at their spring meeting. They did so anyway, voting 73 to 24 to speed the drafting of new guidelines that would deny Biden communion over his support of abortion rights.
They’re now on course to keep the most devout churchgoer in the White House since Jimmy Carter, and the first Catholic since JFK, from one of the seven sacraments of the church.
So far, the Pope’s ignored the fact that the bishops ignored him. With that he shows the same weakness for bipartisanship that afflicts the president. Here are the two world leaders—one whose power derives from God, and is infallible to boot, and the other whose power flows from Article II of the constitution—who believe we can all get along despite massive evidence to the contrary. The Pope, like Biden, is hung up on wishing and hoping and thinking and praying that those who disagree with him will come around. Getting what you want and your flock needs isn’t worth as much if it doesn’t come with the opposition’s blessing.
Like the Pope placating his right wing, Biden keeps waiting for Republicans to see the light and, as a consequence, has gotten nothing noteworthy done with even a Collins or a Romney. (His signal accomplishment, the COVID-19 relief bill, was passed with Democratic votes alone.) He’s asked nicely that those Republicans he joked with in the cloakroom join him in protecting the right to vote, rebuilding the country, and preventing another insurrection by investigating the first. There’s not a chance the GOP is going to do any of it, and they’ve said as much, but he wants to exhaust every possibility. Five months into his term, with time growing scarce before midterm elections loom, he’s still waiting.
Biden’s agenda is temporal, the Pope’s spiritual, but they’re both screwed because neither the Church nor the Capitol rewards working together even though the Founding Fathers and The Heavenly One encouraged as much. The 73 bishops who favor sanctioning Biden are also at odds with Pope Francis’ on his other concerns like migrants, refugees, the unseen poor and environmental degradation that will hurt those already suffering first.
Now the Pope and Biden’s needs are joined. Both have a need to shut down an attempt to use the welcome ascendancy of the second Catholic to the presidency to pursue a right-wing agenda.
Too bad their tactics are joined as well. Neither the Pope nor the President is inclined to pull rank on lesser mortals, like Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, who leads the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine or the Senate Majority Leader. Mitch McConnell has no compunctions exercising the clout he has. McConnell lectured the president this week that the Senate would defeat his voting rights bill because it was such an obvious power grab—unlike the GOP law being passed in the states.
It is hard for non-Catholics to appreciate the potency of denying communion. Other than excommunication, it’s the most severe punishment the Church has, more so in that it comes with a public shaming, inflicted every week, one that split my family apart. When my grandmother divorced her violent, alcoholic husband after 40 years, she was forced to sit primly and alone in our pew for the quarter hour it takes for those in a state of grace to file out, go up to the altar, take communion and return to their seats. After months of this silent suffering, she stopped attending mass. When I turned 16, so did I. I picture Biden, if this edict passes, forgoing mass at St. Joseph on the Brandywine on his frequent trips home to Delaware for services on Zoom.
The contrast with the geyser of pride Catholics felt, and Irish Catholics felt in particular, when John Kennedy was elected president is glaring. That Kennedy won by saying his faith played no role in his political decisions is striking today. Like most politicians now, Biden says his faith informs but does not dictate his thinking. Unlike most politicians, he means it. The bishops, though, want him to bend the knee not to the divine but to them.
The last time denying communion was threatened was in 2004 during Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Periodically, a cardinal or bishop will cluck about denying a Catholic politician the sacrament over abortion—never, say, the death penalty. And for really popular Catholic politicians, say the Kennedys of Massachusetts, they dare not. Hispanics sustain the Catholic Church in America, offsetting collapsing attendance from Anglos. Little could harm the church more than taking off after the likes of California Senator Alex Padilla or Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra who may have a presidential run in his future.
The bishops have an exquisite sense of timing, making their push just as the Supreme Court is deciding a case that could end Roe as we know it. Their eagerness comes when polls show most Catholics support the structure the landmark case set up for making abortion legal in the country: in all cases in the first trimester, sometimes when a judge decides the mother’s life or health is at risk in the second, and almost never in the third.
The bishops go for a target of opportunity like Biden because it gets the attention they want and because there’s no way to punish the 63 percent of Catholic who share the president’s position that Roe should stand. The pro-choice laity can’t be disgraced because there’s no online registry with pictures of heretics yet—although a digital auto-da-fé might be on the Bishops’ minds.
The bishops are voting in November and if the Pope doesn’t do more, they’ll get their vengeance by mortification on Biden. This despite the fact that nowhere in the Ten Commandments or the constitution does it say that everyone will automatically love thy neighbor and all get along, or accede to power that gets to say what goes after an election, whether by a college of electors or cardinals. The Pope and the president, not lesser officials, get to say, if only they would season their kindness with righteous anger.