- The second Catholic US president has attended church services at least 15 times since taking office.
- His support for abortion rights is renewing debate on whether he should receive Communion.
- A bishop organization is weighing drafting a document on “Eucharistic consistency and public life.”
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President Joe Biden usually slips into the back pews of the mid-19th-century Catholic church during the priest’s entrance procession. He genuflects, hugs his grandchildren when they’re there, receives Communion, and typically leaves before other parishioners.
But Biden also stayed late on two recent occasions, according to the Rev. Kevin Gillespie, the pastor at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington’s posh Georgetown neighborhood.
Once the president of the United States apologized to a priest for being 25 minutes tardy. His excuse was he’d been visiting an ailing friend, Bob Dole, the former Kansas GOP senator and Republican nominee for president in 1996.
Another time, Biden hung around to congratulate a boy who had just received his first Holy Communion. People around him were snapping photos with iPhones.
“That speaks volumes, I felt, that he really wanted to be there for that child,” Gillespie said.
Church has been a significant outlet for the nation’s second Catholic president during his early days in office. He’s been in a pew at least 15 times since his January 20 inauguration. That includes receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and his grandson’s confirmation, and just attending Mass.
Unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump, who during his down time religiously played golf at one of his namesake courses and did not regularly attend church while in office, Biden can usually be found on weekends at either St. Joseph on the Brandywine in his home state of Delaware or Washington’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church.
Biden has called his faith “the bedrock foundation of my life.” But church is both a source of comfort and controversy for Biden, whose longstanding support for abortion rights is renewing criticism and debate now that he’s the leader of the free world on whether he should be allowed to receive Communion.
At its upcoming June meeting, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops will consider whether it wants a committee to draft a document on “Eucharistic consistency and public life” for presentation at a subsequent meeting, Chieko Noguchi, a conference spokesperson, said. She added that it was premature to comment on what the document would include.
The conference president, the Most Rev. José H. Gomez, the archbishop of Los Angeles, has said Biden’s policies “would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”
The White House declined to comment on the issue.
Biden’s statements and views on abortion have evolved over his five decades in public life.
Early in his Senate career, Biden told the Washingtonian that the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade “went too far,” but he now says he wants the landmark 1973 ruling protecting a woman’s right to an abortion to be codified.
He long supported the Hyde Amendment, which bans most federal funds for abortion, but flipped his position in 2019 amid criticism from the left.
Biden has also shifted on gay marriage. He voted in 1996 for the now unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act, which precluded federal recognition of same-sex marriage, before famously saying as vice president that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage. Three bishops described him in a 2016 blog post as a “counter witness” — without naming him — after he officiated the wedding of two male White House staffers.
“Proud to marry Brian and Joe at my house,” Biden tweeted with a photo of the ceremony. “Couldn’t be happier, two longtime White House staffers, two great guys.”
—VP Biden (Archived) (@VP44) August 1, 2016
Parishioners at Holy Trinity — a church he attended as vice president and where his grandchildren have received some of their sacraments — feel “honored” to have Biden there and applauded when he arrived the Sunday after his inauguration, Gillespie said. But the pastor has also received more than 125 emails, letters, and phone calls from people outside the church protesting Biden receiving Communion because of his abortion stance.
“It is controversial, but that comes with the territory,” Gillespie said. “When I see something postmarked from Texas or Minnesota or California who I don’t recognize, I know what’s going to be in there.”
‘A bitter medicine’
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is not a governance organization and doesn’t oversee bishops, who make their own decisions. Gillespie said he agreed with Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, who has said he would not deny Biden Communion, despite their differences over abortion.
“A priest is not going to, in the archdiocese of Washington, tell the president at the altar rail not to receive Communion,” Gillespie said.
In Delaware, the answer is less clear.
The incoming bishop of Biden’s home diocese, Monsignor William Koenig, hasn’t said whether he will allow Biden to continue receiving Communion. During an April press conference, he said he was open to a conversation with the president on the issue, “but as a bishop, I’m called to teach the fullness and the beauty of the Catholic faith.”
Other church leaders are already taking stands. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s archbishop in San Francisco, Salvatore J. Cordileone, recently suggested that public figures who support abortion rights could be excluded from Communion as a remedy.
“This is a bitter medicine, but the gravity of the evil of abortion can sometimes warrant it,” he wrote in a 17-page pastoral letter published on May 1.
Biden experienced this treatment in 2019 when a South Carolina priest denied him Communion, ABC News reported. He later declined to discuss the incident with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC, calling it his “personal life.” He added that while he was a practicing Catholic, he never tried to “to impose that view on other people.”
Religion posed challenges for America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who had to work to reassure voters during the 1960 White House campaign that he wouldn’t take his cues from the pope. Catholicism seems more important to Biden than it was to Kennedy, whose wife once called him a bad Catholic, Margaret McGuinness, a religion professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia, said.
“He was your typical kind of attend-Mass-on-Sunday and not much worry about it the rest of the time,” she said of Kennedy.
Even so, Kennedy defeated Republican Richard Nixon more than a half century ago with about 80% of the Catholic vote. AP VoteCast estimates showed Biden split the Catholic vote almost evenly with Trump.
Biden’s Catholicism runs deep. He is known for wearing rosary beads that belonged to his son Beau, who died in 2015 of brain cancer, as a “connection with him.” When he arrived in Louisiana on May 6, the National Day of Prayer, cameras and reporters caught him comparing pocket rosaries with the state’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, who is also Catholic.
—Howard Mortman (@HowardMortman) May 6, 2021
The president keeps a framed photo of his meeting with Pope Francis behind his desk in the Oval Office. His jokes sometimes include the sign of the cross to show humility or sarcasm.
Growing up, Biden attended Catholic schools. Church, he wrote in his 2007 memoir, felt like “an extension of home.” But his faith was shaken after the death of his first wife, Neilia, and baby Naomi in 1972, and he “found no comfort in the Church,” he wrote.
Years later, after Beau’s death, Biden told the late-night TV host and fellow Catholic Stephen Colbert that religion gave him “an enormous sense of solace.”
“And all the comforting things, and all the good things that have happened have happened around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion,” he said.
Still a ‘regular guy’ at church
Parishioners at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington are used to seeing Biden there. A fellow parishioner who asked not to be named recalled meeting Biden in the late 1980s at a meeting for parents of children in the religious-education program.
He participated in the discussion and talked about his daughter Ashley, then a child.
“He just had the same hopes and thoughts and sense of responsibility to impart the Catholic faith that the rest of us did, and so it was important for him to be there,” the parishioner said.
Over the years, the parishioner said it was fun seeing Biden as a senator and then as the vice president walk up the aisle for Communion.
“When family members visit and come to Mass with me, sometimes they’ll elbow me during Communion, and they would say, ‘Was that Sen. Biden? or, ‘Was that Vice President Biden?’ And I’d be, ‘Oh, yeah.’ And you feel totally cool,” she said.
As a lector, the parishioner now sees him in the back of the church praying and participating during the Mass.
“For me, the fact that he continues to return to his home parish reinforces my impression of President Biden as someone who values and draws strength from his roots,” she said.
Another parishioner said, “When he’s here, he’s a regular guy.”
Even so, the same parishioner said he was glad that 50 years from now, his grandson would get to look back at his picture with the president. It was taken on the day his grandson and Biden’s grandson were both confirmed.
“For anybody, it has to be wonderful,” he said.
‘He’s been through it.’
Pope Francis’ inauguration message to Biden made no mention of the abortion issue.
He instead prayed for Biden to focus on building a just and free society, to respect the poor and vulnerable, and to “advance the universal common good.” The pope, who famously called out some of Trump‘s rhetoric as “not Christian,” congratulated Biden shortly after it was announced that he won the election.
While the church may disagree with Biden on abortion, “we agree with him on so many other aspects,” Gillespie said, including his efforts to address climate change, racism, and immigration reform. Biden increased the number of refugees that could resettle in the US amid pressure from some parts of the Catholic lobby, Gillespie said.
The statement Biden gave after the jury verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, which convicted the former Minneapolis police officer of George Floyd’s murder, was “homiletical, in terms of seeking healing and justice,” Gillespie said.
“I had given a homily myself that day, and I wish I had heard him beforehand,” he said. “He speaks with a soothing way of touching people in their pain. And it’s authentic because he’s been through it.”
Gillespie said he spoke with Biden only briefly on the Sunday after his inauguration. “I said, Mr. President, You’re always welcome here at Holy Trinity.’ He says, ‘Thank you, that means a lot.'”