The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Catholic Church has long tried to discipline political leaders

But it only rarely works — and the risk to the church is high.

Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle during Inauguration Day ceremonies in Washington on Jan. 20. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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On June 18, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 168-55 to create guidelines on the meaning of Holy Communion following an impassioned debate over whether to deny the sacrament to politicians who support abortion rights. The debate isn’t new. Bishops long have excoriated politicians because of their support for access to abortion. But it has taken on new visibility with Joe Biden — the first Catholic president since John F. Kennedy — in the White House. Some within the church argue that refusing the Eucharist to pro-choice politicians is for their own good, an effort to save a wayward parishioner from consuming the body and blood of Christ in a state of sin. But others see it as a highly political act on the part of a church whose tax-exempt status precludes political involvement.

However, the tensions between the Catholic Church and government leaders run even deeper than recent debates over abortion. In fact, the Catholic Church has a long history of using the sacraments to discipline and control political leaders. At stake, then and now, is influence over the hearts, minds and behavior of the Catholic faithful. Political leaders want the imprimatur that approval by religious authorities confers, while the church wants secular rulers to carry out their preferred policies.

Once Roman emperors converted to Christianity, secular and religious authorities struggled for the upper hand. In the Middle Ages and beyond, prelates — high church officials — tried to force kings to submit to Roman Catholic teachings and to acknowledge church primacy. For example, during the Investiture Controversy of the late 11th century, a heated dispute emerged over whether secular rulers or popes should appoint church bishops and abbots. In the end, a compromise was reached that effectively allowed rulers to choose church officials, while the pope invested them with their religious authority. Church dignitaries played too important a governmental role in medieval Europe for kings to cede all control over their selection.

Yet, popes had three potent tools at their disposal to discipline insubordinate political authorities: excommunication (when a sinner is banished from the religious community), deposition (when a pope declares an individual unfit for office and deposes him) and interdiction (which bans celebration of the sacraments in the lands of a renegade monarch). Their willingness to employ these tactics usually depended on the political context, and the particular pope’s appetite for conflict.

Fights over marital practices and morals were perhaps the most contentious battles. At a time when marriage served political ends, medieval European rulers frequently would set aside wives who could not bear children or those who were no longer politically useful. The church, however, viewed marriage as indissoluble and would sometimes refuse to recognize the divorce and subsequent new marriage, threatening the monarch with spiritual sanctions that could lessen his legitimacy in the eyes of his subjects.

Annulment — a procedure declaring a marriage null and void because of a preexisting impediment to its validity — eventually became the workaround that allowed political elites to rid themselves of unsatisfactory spouses while still publicly adhering to church law. But this didn’t always work. When Pope Clement VII refused to allow Henry VIII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry asserted control over the Church of England by creating the Anglican Church. His handpicked archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cramner, approved the dissolution of Henry’s marriage to Catherine and crowned his new wife, Anne Boleyn, as queen, cementing England’s break from Rome.

Church law and royal politics also clashed frequently during the reign of Louis XIV of France (r. 1643-1715). A fervent Catholic, he was also a promiscuous man who elevated a series of women as royal mistresses, a long-standing tradition at the French court, but one that the church deemed sinful.

The king’s official mistress for more than a decade, the beautiful Madame de Montespan, created a particular problem for the church. Her position at court was extremely visible, and she was married, which meant that the king was publicly engaged in a scandalous case of “double adultery.” In April 1675, the priest at the parish church of Versailles ostentatiously refused Montespan Communion because, he claimed, she was living in a state of sin. Louis XIV confronted Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, bishop of Condom (ironically) and royal adviser, about this affront to his mistress (and implicitly to himself). But Bossuet supported the priest. This public condemnation was too much for the king, who agreed to end the affair and to send Montespan from the court.

However, the church’s victory was short-lived; Montespan triumphantly returned as Louis’s lover a year later. Dependent on the king’s support for their other priorities, church leaders offered only muted criticism. And despite feelings of personal guilt over his behavior, Louis refused to curb his sexual excesses until later in life. His successor, Louis XV, also known for his many adulterous affairs, simply stopped going to confession and taking Communion, acknowledging his sinfulness but also foreclosing the possibility of public humiliation.

In short, church pressure was seldom successful in changing a ruler’s behavior. That reality made it more practical for church authorities to seek private accommodation and public harmony.

Similar dynamics are at play today. A significant majority of U.S. bishops want the larger public to see them warn the president and other Catholic politicians. The threat to withhold Communion is a political performance, designed to show the church’s displeasure with the Democratic Party’s stance on abortion rights.

And yet, Biden is not backing down. When asked about his reaction to the possibility he might be denied Communion, the president responded, “That’s a private matter,” offering no hint that he would change his stance on abortion rights in response to church pressure.

And indeed, a number of prelates, including Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, have indicated that they would not deny Communion to Biden. Pope Francis himself has made it clear that he does not support the weaponization of sacraments. In addition, a number of observers have pointed out that the USCCB has not employed similar tactics against Republican lawmakers who support policies contrary to church doctrine.

The bishops might be wise to look to history before attempting to use the sacraments as a cudgel against politicians who support policies at odds with Catholic teachings. Kings did sometimes yield to church pressure. But their acquiescence was almost always temporary; secular authorities are seldom willing to abandon their interests, even in the face of religious condemnation. And when pushed too far, political leaders have been willing to call out church authorities as political actors rather than pastoral ones. A similar reaction today could undermine the church’s reputation at a time when it is already losing adherents and moral authority — even if a schism like the one that took place under Henry VIII is unlikely to follow.

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