(RNS) — In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?”
I have been turning that question over in my head lately as I consider the recent behavior of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. These are men who trace their authority back to Peter, whom Jesus commanded to “feed my sheep.” But lately many in the conference have been feeding us on stones rather than bread.
When the USCCB convenes for its spring meeting next week, it will consider whether to commission a document on administering Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. No one doubts that the proposal’s intent is to threaten to withhold Communion from President Joseph Biden, a lifelong Catholic whose devotion to his faith is plain for all to see.
The bishops are considering this action even though the Vatican has warned them against it, because the president, while personally opposed to abortion, supports policies that permit it. Biden also supports federal funding to ensure access to contraception and other reproductive health services, and upholds the rights of LGBTQ+ people.
Though Catholics hold a range of opinions on each of these issues, most Catholics agree with the president. Realizing perhaps that Biden lives his faith in a way that commends him to Catholics around the world, a group of conservatives among the bishops is threatening to withhold the sacrament that sustains Catholics for daily life and mission.
The president is only the most high-profile Catholic to be targeted in this way. A married lesbian judge in Michigan was banned from Communion by the pastor of the Catholic church where three generations of her family had worshipped and worked. At funerals I’ve attended, priests have announced that anyone married to a same-sex partner or those remarried without benefit of annulment should not present themselves for Communion.
Sometimes, others in attendance have shared their bread with those who did not approach the altar to provide the sacrament a church official denied. They became the ones to feed the sheep.
Withholding Communion from any Catholic to punish them for their identity, actions or beliefs is coercion. It forces the person to the margins of their faith community. It shames them by encouraging people to speculate about why they are unworthy of approaching the sacred table. It violates the duty of care that is the central ministry of the ordained.
Denying Communion is symbolic of denial of care in other forms. In recent months, the USCCB has opposed the implementation of a national suicide hotline because it included funding directed to the LGBTQ+ community. It opposed renewal of the Violence Against Women Act for the same reason. In both cases, the bishops deemed it less important to save people’s lives than to prevent the democratically elected government of a religiously pluralistic country to spend money in ways that violated Catholic dogma.
We are currently awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that will determine whether publicly funded, religiously affiliated providers of foster care and adoption services must allow LGBTQ+ individuals and couples to open their homes and their lives to children in need of stability, support and the love of a family.
If, as most expect, the USCCB and others prevail in this case, a whole range of social services funded with public dollars could be withheld from anyone deemed “unfit.” That is a terrifying prospect in a pluralistic nation.
The USCCB has long flexed its political muscles to promote narrow and contentious interpretations of Catholic doctrine, rather than advancing the public good. Increasingly, the bishops are behaving in a brazenly partisan manner, calling out the perceived transgressions of one party while ignoring those of the other.
Threatening Biden with denial of Communion is a signal that the USCCB expects the power structure of this country, as well as individual Catholics, to bend to its will. I call on elected and appointed officials to remember their duty to the Constitution and to the diverse communities they serve and stand against the pressure to protect doctrine over people. The God I follow asked Peter to feed his sheep. We have had enough of bishops who give us only stones.
(Marianne Duddy-Burke is executive director of DignityUSA, which works for justice, equality and full inclusion of LGBTQI people in church and society. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)