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Conscience Magazine

Biden Communion Denial Sparks 2020 “Wafer Watch”

By Conscience December 12, 2019

During a campaign stop in Florence, South Carolina, in October, Rev. Robert Morey publicly refused to serve Communion to former vice president and 2020 Democratic frontrunner, Joe Biden, citing Biden’s prochoice position as the reason. The incident briefly revived the national debate over the purpose of the sacrament and the consequences of politicizing it. In 2004, presidential candidate John Kerry was denied Communion in St. Louis due to his prochoice stance, sparking what observers called “Wafer Watch.” At that time, a vast majority of US bishops opposed the practice of using the Eucharist as a “sanction”—for both theological and political reasons. Theologically, they noted

that there was no basis in canon law for denying Communion on political or ideological grounds and felt that doing so would “trivialize” the sacrament, dragging it into the morass of political squabbles. Others worried it would cast the church as a “bully” in the eyes of the public or appear hypocritical amid sexual abuse scandals. Outside the hierarchy, critics were quick to point to other policy positions that conflicted with official church teachings, questioning the motives behind those who would deny the sacrament to prochoice politicians but not to those who support the death penalty or the Iraq war.

In the 15 intervening years, the issue has become more polarized, but the attitude of the US bishops has remained largely the same. Earlier this year, Cardinal Timothy Dolan refused calls to deny the Eucharist to New York governor

Andrew Cuomo after the passage of abortion protection laws, arguing that it should not be “used as a weapon.” Others offered reminders of Pope Francis’ statement that the sacrament “is not a prize for the perfect.” There are outliers, such as Bishop Thomas Poprocki of Springfield, Illinois, who issued a public statement declaring that he would withhold the sacrament from Catholic lawmakers who voted for abortion protections in the state, unless they not only rescinded their vote but proposed counter-legislation to restrict access. Given that none of the lawmakers he targeted were actually under his “jurisdiction,” the move was perceived largely as a publicity stunt. Only a handful of US bishops have followed Poprocki’s lead.

Morey’s decision marks the first such instance of the presidential campaign season. Biden and his staff have chosen not to respond to queries about the matter. Though a hot topic in some corners, the overall response has thus far been one of relative indifference, and media interest was light and quick to fizzle, distinguishing it from the “Wafer Wars” of 2004. Still, of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates, five are

Catholic—and all five are prochoice—and election day is still a year away.


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