San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy distributes communion to those in attendance.
San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy distributes Communion during a border Mass in July 2018. Photo by Chris Stone

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy this week upped his opposition to efforts to exclude President Joe Biden from receiving Holy Communion during the Roman Catholic Mass.

Saying such a ban could cause substantial damage to the Catholic Church, McEloy wrote that a prohibition would weaponize Communion — the delivery and consumption of a bread wafer believed by Catholics to be transformed into the body of Christ — and use it as a tool of political warfare.

“This must not happen,” the bishop spelled out in a 1,600-word essay posted Wednesday in America, a Jesuit publication he contributes to.

McElroy has been making the case for months, including during a Georgetown University online forum Feb. 1 dubbed the “Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.”

He cited Pope Francis, who he said “has placed encounter, dialogue, honesty and collaboration at the heart of his approach to public conversation” and was “unlikely to endorse” a ban on distributing Communion to some Catholics.

During Biden’s candidacy and now into his presidency, many American bishops have decried Biden’s defense of a woman’s right to choose. They have suggested that Biden should be denied Communion because of it.

On Thursday, Vatican Prelate Cardinal Michael Czerny, the undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Discastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, told Religious News Service: “It’s not up to the bishops in general to make these decisions. It’s the bishop of the person.”

McElroy said, there is “immense sadness” among bishops and the church as a whole that more isn’t done to protect the unborn, but a Communion ban is the wrong step.

Earlier this week, The Most Rev. Salvatore J. Cordileone, archbishop of San Francisco, said in a pastoral letter: “When other avenues are exhausted, the only recourse a pastor has left is the public medicine of temporary exclusion from the Lord’s Table. This is a bitter medicine, but the gravity of the evil of abortion can sometimes warrant it.” (Cordileone once was an auxiliary bishop of the San Diego diocese.)

Recalling a similar debate when Democrat John Kerry ran for president in 2004, Catholic leaders in both Washington, D.C. and Delaware have said they would not deny the president Communion. (McElroy himself wrote an essay in January 2005 warning of a repeat.)

In his latest piece, McElroy argues against those who propose a ban.

First, he refers to the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, as a “sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity.”

“A national policy of excluding pro-choice political leaders from the Eucharist will constitute an assault on that unity, on that charity,” McElroy writes.

He explains: “Fully half the Catholics in the United States will see this action as partisan in nature, and it will bring the terrible partisan divisions that have plagued our nation into the very act of worship that is intended by God to cause and signify our oneness.”

Calling the proposal selective and inconsistent, McElroy also questions how many Catholic leaders would be excluded if the policy were applied to all Catholics.

“How many of the faithful will be eligible for the Eucharist by this criterion?” he writes.

Catholic leaders believe that abortion and euthanasia are “grave evils,” the San Diego bishop writes, but he asserted that failure to embrace all teachings “cannot be the measure of ‘eucharistic worthiness.’”

In addition, McElroy asks, “Why hasn’t racism been included in the call for eucharistic sanctions against political leaders?”

“The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will be dealing a great blow to that integral unity if it passes a national policy of eucharistic exclusion aimed at abortion but not at racism,” McElroy wrote in advance of a June meeting of the conference, where the issue is expected to arise.

In his essay, McElroy added: “As to whether racism is a sin that threatens human life, anyone with doubts should talk with the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin.”

Quoting the pope, McElroy said the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

The incoming bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington, which oversees the church where Biden often worships, was asked over the weekend whether he would deny the president Eucharist in his diocese, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

“The cleric said only that he is hoping to have a conversation with Biden but that, as a bishop, he is ‘called to teach the fullness and the beauty of the Catholic faith,'” the paper said.

Finally, McElroy wrote that a message of “unworthiness” and exclusion is not suited for this time when people are emerging from the pandemic.

“It would undermine the tremendous work that our priests and lay leaders are doing in emphasizing the importance of every Catholic returning to full and active participation in the liturgy of God,” he said.

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