In September 1960, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, against the advice of his political consultants, confronted anti-Catholic bigotry head-on in an extraordinary speech before a hostile audience of several hundred Protestant ministers in Houston.

This was days after another group of Protestant clergy, representing 37 denominations and presided over by Norman Vincent Peale, had declared that a Roman Catholic president would be “under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church.”

Kennedy vowed that, if elected, the oath that he would follow was the one he took upon his inauguration to defend the U.S. Constitution.

At a time when some equated Catholic teachings to socialism, the Massachusetts senator said: “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.”

Kennedy’s strong stance on the separation of church and state helped secure the narrow victory that made him the first Catholic president in U.S. history.

A little more than 60 years later, a second Catholic president sits in the White House, and the church’s American bishops appear to have forgotten what it took for one of their own to get there. On Friday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — defying a warning from the Vatican — voted to create guidelines for receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion.

After Catholic bishops on June 18 voted to create guidelines that might bar him from the Eucharist, President Biden suggested it would not be implemented. (The Washington Post)

What is driving the move is a push by conservative bishops to declare that President Biden, who rarely misses Mass and is arguably the most religiously observant president since Jimmy Carter, should not be allowed to receive the Eucharist. It is also a reaction to the relatively liberal Pope Francis, who espouses a vision of making the church more inclusive.

JFK, of course, never had to deal with many of the social issues that roil politics today, which include not only abortion but gay rights, gender identity and bioethics. But the fact is, abortion rights are now the law of the land, deemed constitutional under a landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court opinion and consistently supported since then by a majority of the American public, albeit with restrictions.

Biden is far from the first Catholic politician to in fact come “under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church” over their support of the law when it comes to abortion rights.

In 1984, New York Archbishop John J. O’Connor castigated then-Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro over their support for legal abortion. O’Connor would also warn Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights that they could face excommunication from the church. When Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, also a Catholic, was campaigning in Missouri in 2004, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke publicly warned him “not to present himself for Communion” — a punishment that Canon Law 915 reserves for “those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.”

But if Catholic clergy are going to draw such lines around the issue of abortion, why not punish politicians who disregard other pro-life social teachings of the church, including its opposition to the death penalty, which Francis has called “inadmissible”? Or its support for freer immigration and generous social services for migrants? Or helping those who are poor? Or its decree that addressing climate change is a grave and urgent moral imperative?

Catholics — and I am one — should be leery of those in the clergy who treat the Communion wafer as some kind of merit badge, rather than the spiritual sustenance that we were taught to believe it is. Francis himself said this month that Communion “is not the reward of saints, no, it is the bread of sinners. This is why [Jesus] exhorts us: ‘Do not be afraid! Take and eat.’”

They should also be suspicious of the political timing of this debate. The power to decree who is and isn’t eligible to receive Communion rests with the local bishop in each diocese, or the pope.

But if the 400-plus active and retired bishops who constitute the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops vote at their next meeting in November to declare that supporters of abortion rights should be denied Communion, their statement will no doubt become a cudgel against some Catholic politicians, mostly Democrats, in the elections of 2022 and beyond.

And it will mean that the doubts that JFK sought to put to rest will be justified.

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