Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks Oct. 26, at the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. Biden attended morning Mass Oct. 27 at St. Anthony Church in Florence and was refused Communion by the pastor, Father Robert E. Morey, over Biden’s support for legal abortion. (Sam Wolfe/CNS, via Reuters)

FLORENCE, S.C. (CNS) — Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently pursuing the Democratic nomination for president, attended the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Anthony Church in Florence, South Carolina, Oct. 27, and when he presented himself to receive the Eucharist was refused by the pastor.

“Sadly, this past Sunday, I had to refuse holy Communion to former Vice President Joe Biden,” Fr. Robert Morey wrote in a statement responding to queries from the Florence Morning News. “Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church. Our actions should reflect that. Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden appear on stage during their election victory rally in Chicago Nov. 7. They return to office for a second term after defeating Republican challengers Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. (Larry Downing/CNS, via Reuters)

At the heart of that teaching is Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law which states that holy Communion should not be given to two groups of persons: those who are excommunicated or interdicted, and those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.”

The issue of Catholic politicians supporting abortion has been addressed at every level of the Catholic Church. In 2004, Pope Benedict XVI as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a memo on “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles.”

In it he stated: “Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”

“This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote.

This is a file photo of St. Anthony Church in Florence, S.C. Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attended morning Mass at the church Oct. 27, and was refused Communion by the pastor, Father Robert E. Morey, over the presidential candidate’s support for legal abortion. (CNS, courtesy of “The Catholic Miscellany”)

In the fourth edition of “Catholics in the Public Square,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix affirmed this teaching, stating that a politician supporting abortion, he is not only causing scandal, but actually sinning.

“When a politician performs actions (like voting) that allow for abortions and even promote abortions, or that mandate the distribution of contraceptives by pharmacists and others, that politician is materially cooperating in grave sin,” Bishop Olmsted wrote. “When this occurs, then the politician cannot receive holy Communion without previously making a good confession.”

He further concluded that a good confession requires sincere sorrow and a firm purpose of making amendment. “Since the harm done would be public in nature, the amendment should also be public.”

Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares also affirmed this teaching recently when he joined a chorus calling for the excommunication of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo after he signed into law a bill that allowed for abortion at any time if the unborn child was not considered “viable.”

“I am compelled to raise my voice in calling on … all Catholic bishops to excommunicate the ‘Catholic’ governors and all other ‘Catholic’ politicians who are promoting the most vile, hideous and, yes, demonic practice of murdering the new born babies,” he tweeted.

In his statement, Fr. Morey offered his prayers for Biden.

“As a priest, it is my responsibility to minister to those souls entrusted to my care, and I must do so even in the most difficult situations,” he stated.

Biden, campaigning for his 2020 bid for president, was in South Carolina Oct. 26-27 attending a town hall meeting in Florence and a justice forum in Columbia. He identifies himself as Catholic and attends Mass at St. Joseph on the Brandywine in Greenville, Delaware.

His stance on abortion has changed over his career. He initially opposed the use of taxpayer money to fund abortions. In June, however, he reversed his position on the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of Medicaid funding for abortion. In an Oct. 5 tweet, he wrote: “Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, and we must fight any and all attempts to overturn it. As president, I will codify Roe into law and ensure this choice remains between a woman and her doctor.”

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress as Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Speaker of the House John Boehner look on in the House of Representatives Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Sept. 24. (Paul Haring/CNS)

The presidential candidate is no stranger to controversy regarding Church teaching. During his 2008 campaign as vice president, he appealed to St. Thomas Aquinas to cast doubt on the Church’s teaching on abortion, prompting an open letter from Knights of Columbus supreme knight Carl Anderson. As vice president, after presiding over a same-sex wedding for two White House staffers in 2016, three U.S. bishops representing different USCCB committees, called his actions a “counter-witness” to marriage.

Fr. Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary Church in Greenville, expressed support for Fr. Morey in an email to The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston.

“As a canon lawyer, my own conviction is that Catholic politicians who support abortion do fall under the exclusion described by Canon 915 and that Father Morey arguably has the law on his side,” he said. “Moreover, the law does not restrict to the diocesan bishop the decision to exclude from Communion someone who fits either category of Canon 915, so Fr. Morey did not exceed his authority.”

“Perhaps the best analogy to this matter is the decision of several bishops during the struggle for civil rights to exclude from holy Communion those Catholic politicians who continued to oppose full integration for African Americans,” Fr. Newman continued. “The archbishop of New Orleans, for example, was widely applauded for his courage in taking that step.”

— By Deirdre C. Mays, Catholic News Service. Mays is editor of THE CATHOLIC MISCELLANY, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston.