Weaponizing the wafer: Why San Francisco Archbishop opposes communion for Biden

By Don Lattin

By Don Lattin

Given the chance, would San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone deny Holy Communion to Joe Biden, only the second Roman Catholic president in U.S. history?

Would he weaponize the wafer?

On June 18, His Excellency issued a brief missive — more like a missile — supporting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent vote that could result in Biden being barred from taking communion because the president supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

Cordileone made it clear that he was flying with a group of right-wing bishops who are determined to use the sacrament of communion as a political weapon in the Catholic hierarchy’s long-standing alliance with conservative evangelicals and the culture warriors of the GOP.

In doing so, the American bishops ignored the advice of Pope Francis, who warned the prelates that they were wading into dangerous waters. Yes, I guess you could say that the American bishops have come to see themselves as more Catholic than the pope.

Some of you who are not up to speed on how the Catholic church operates may be surprised that liberal San Francisco has such a conservative archbishop. So let’s step back and consider the recent history of politics and religion in the United States.

I’m old enough to remember the election of the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who had to go out of his way to assure the American people that he would not blindly follow dictates of the pope and his American prelates.

From all appearances, Joe Biden seems to be a devout, middle-of-the-road Catholic — a man who turns to his faith to find solace in times of trouble. That’s about as American as apple pie.

One would think that the American leaders of the Roman Catholic church would be thrilled to have such a man sitting in the Oval Office. But not in today’s divisive political climate, when wedge issues like abortion and gay rights trump religion.

I’m not Catholic, but I spent many years writing about the church as the religion writer for The Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, retiring from daily newspapering in 2006.

I started writing for The Examiner in 1977, when Pope Paul VI appointed Archbishop John Quinn to shepherd the San Francisco flock. That same year, Quinn was elected to a three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Quinn was a leading liberal voice in the church, especially on such issues as nuclear disarmament and economic justice. He was also a tireless critic of U.S. policy in Central America during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Quinn, who died in 2017, was among a group of bishops who came of age and rose to power in the 1960s, amid the liberal church reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the papacies of John XXIII (1958-1963) and Paul VI (1963-1978).

My stint as a religion reporter roughly coincided with the long reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), the Polish pontiff who was charismatic, popular and deeply conservative. He appointed the conservative bishops who still hold a firm majority at the bishops’ conference, including Archbishop Cordileone.

Numerous polls showed that Pope John Paul II’s traditional views on birth control, premarital sex, divorce, the ordination of women, gay rights and abortion did not reflect the views of American Catholics — let alone San Francisco Catholics. But as snarky priests liked to say during his pontificate, “We don’t listen to the polls. We listen to the Pole.”

The current flap over pro-choice Catholic politicians being denied the sacrament of Holy Communion is not a new controversy. At the level of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, it tends to be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Individual bishops — not the collective conference — have the power to deny communion or make “pastoral decisions” to look the other way. This happens all the time. Divorced Catholics, or Catholics who marry a divorced spouse outside the church, are technically not supposed to take communion.

When it comes to the politics and theology of abortion, the devil is in the details. If President Biden is banned from receiving communion, what about the millions of Catholic women who have actually had abortions, including those who may have been raped or whose life was at risk if they gave birth?

And why not deny communion to Catholic politicians who support the death penalty, or ban those who oppose legislation to provide greater economic justice for the poor?

In my reading of the Bible, Jesus says a lot about solidarity with the poor. He says nothing about abortion.

In his June 18 statement, Archbishop Cordileone cites “our unity in Jesus Christ” and “our God-given responsibility as bishops to proclaim the truth.” But then he warns against a “feigned unity.” He calls on the faithful to consider early church martyrs “who died to protect the Most Blessed Sacrament from profanation.”

Given the context of last week’s discussion at the bishops’ conference, that is militant code language — a signal to religious conservatives who see themselves as a persecuted remnant of the One True Church, a church that never existed and certainly doesn’t exist in today’s pluralistic society.

So, if Joe Biden approached the altar in St. Mary’s Cathedral this Sunday, what would Archbishop Cordileone do?

Here’s his answer, delivered via email:

“First of all, if I were informed that President Biden were coming to San Francisco and intended to attend public Mass, I would attempt to contact his office and discuss it in advance. But even if that were not possible, it is very publicly known that I support Church teaching in this matter. President Biden certainly knows that, and I believe he is respectful enough not to create a scene by approaching me to receive Holy Communion.”

Don Lattin is the author of seven books, including an ancestral memoir, “Running from Religion — Five Centuries of Mystics and Misfits.” Learn more at www.donlattin.com

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