A few weeks ago, Catholic bishops gathered at the U.S. Bishops Conference. One of the issues they discussed was whether people such as President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and other well-known Catholic politicians can hold moral positions in opposition to those of the Catholic Church and still take the Eucharist. There were a variety of reactions to this debate, both inside and outside of the Catholic Church. Many people are arguing that any Catholic can go to mass and take the Eucharist. During each mass, the priest proclaims that any Catholic in good standing can approach the priest and receive the Eucharist. But as a Protestant, I know that I am not invited to take communion. I respect the position of the Roman Catholic Church by not going forward, even though if I could go up and cross my hands to receive a blessing from the priest instead.
What I want to highlight in this article is that the refusal to give the Lord’s Table to people in the Catholic Church is something that has happened for millennia—it did not start because of President Biden. The Catholic Church has always closely guarded the Lord’s Table because it is a sacred event. Before people came to take the Lord’s Table, they were required to go to confession and participate in the mass.
Historically, the Pontiff has the authority to remove a priest from his position, to close a church building, and to stop the sacraments, and the bishops must carry out his decrees. All of these things have happened throughout the centuries, but probably the best-known is King Henry IV and the event known as the Humiliation at Canossa in 1077. The Pope disagreed with the King, so he closed the churches. Because the churches were closed, no one could officiate over baptisms, masses, weddings, or last rites. King Henry IV understood this, so he traveled to Canossa in the wintertime and had to crawl on his knees to receive the papal pardon and have churches opened again.
It is true that there have been powerful Catholic families in the United States who were able to thwart the requirements of the church. There have also been American bishops who disavowed their commitment to the sacredness of the Mass and allowed controversial parishioners to take the Eucharist. Among the strong Catholic political families in the United States, we have the Kennedys, the Cuomos, the Pelosis, and the Bidens. When John Kennedy was running for president, he told his audience at an event in Texas that he would not take messages from the Pope and he would not submit himself to the Pope. This connection between the Pope and political figures started with the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 AD. The Pope crowned Charlemagne as the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but the greatest authority was in the pope who did the crowning. One thousand years later, Kennedy reversed that by removing himself from the Pope’s authority.
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Amato Cuomo, the father of the two Cuomo brothers (the governor and the newscaster), traveled to Notre Dame in the 1960s to give a speech. The national debate about abortion was heated and Cuomo stated that, while privately he was against abortion as a good Catholic, he was for it as a governor, which creates one of the earliest schizophrenias in Catholic thinking. Biden continues that argument, by stating that he can be a Catholic while supporting policy in direct opposition to the teaching of the Pope and the Catholic Church.
The question for the Catholic priest and the Protestant pastor is this: Do we have to guard the sacredness of the Mass or worship service? How do we approach the Lord’s Table? What is a Catholic in good standing? Can one live seemingly indifferently to the message of Christ as understood by the Church and then come to partake of the Eucharist?
This brings us to John Calvin. There is a frightening passage about the Lord’s Table in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. It states that if people come to the Lord’s Table without discernment, they can be punished by the Lord, and some may die. In the 16th century, John Calvin practiced what is known as the protection of the Lord’s Table. Like the Catholics, the Reformers shared communion every Sunday. One Sunday in May 1538, he told the congregation that the political leaders of the city had acted in an ungodly way that week. Calvin had decided as the pastor of the city of Geneva not to give them the Lord’s Table, so as not to condemn them by allowing them to eat and drink from it. The table was covered, and Calvin went home. That afternoon, the political leaders fired him as the pastor of the city. He was given three days to pack his things. He left and worked as the pastor of a French church in Strasburg for the next four years. Calvin considered those years the happiest of his life. After those four years, he came back and preached from the next chapter of the Bible as though he had never left the city of Geneva.
I am not a prophet, but I am a student of history. Catholicism throughout the world is conservative, but it has a strong liberal demographic in Europe and the USA. Popes John Paul and Benedict were conservative. Pope Francis is hard to figure out, but most people feel that he is liberal. I think that Catholicism will regain its conservative or historical position in the next few decades but right now, it is evident there is a split in the American Catholic family. At the conference, despite vocal disagreement from some bishops, they voted 168 to 55 to draft a letter asking to deny President Biden communion. After the bishops voted, 60 Democrats from the US House of Representatives asked the bishops not to proceed. According to Pew Research, 67% of Catholics agree that the president should be allowed to take communion.
Of course, this issue is not limited to President Biden and abortion. There have been many leaders who continued to attend Mass and take the Eucharist while upholding the death penalty or creating policies that disenfranchised the poor. But the reality remains that the Christian Church has prohibited people from taking the Lord’s Table in the past, and they can do it again when our politicians agree with one thing within the walls of the church and work against that same thing in their political offices.
In Protestantism, the Word of God or the Bible has authority over the preacher. In the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine and dogma of the church have authority over the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and local church members. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is discussing the Lord’s Tables and writes, “In regards to this, I cannot praise you.” God is the final Judge and I will never judge anyone’s relationship with God, but this is clear—how we present ourselves at the Table of the Lord matters. In my estimation, the bishops of Washington, DC and Delaware forsake their position as teachers in the Catholic Church by permitting President Biden to participate in the Mass.