My Turn: For country or communion?

For the Monitor
Published: 6/27/2021 9:00:06 AM

As a life-long practicing Catholic and a graduate of a Catholic college, I was appalled to learn that America’s Catholic bishops recently voted overwhelmingly to advance the notion that President Biden should be denied the sacrament of communion because he supports the constitutional right of a woman to have an abortion.

That’s the same Constitution he swore before the nation on January 20th to protect and defend. America was founded on religious freedom and the separation of church and state. The founding fathers knew that mixing faith beliefs with constitutional rights would be lethal to the very republic they risked their lives to form.

The president’s role as the secular leader of our republic does not permit him to select the constitutional rights he supports by examining them through the refracted light of a religious prism. Indeed, if he did that it would not only violate the oath he swore but also imperil everyone’s constitutional rights and freedoms. Those with no faith or a different faith than Catholicism have a right to rely upon constitutional guarantees and upon a president to enforce them whether they comport with his or her faith or not.

I remember the election of President Kennedy when I was a child and how my mother cried in joy in our living room in the wee hours of that historic November morning when he was declared the winner. I still remember those tears. She had never expected that someone of her faith, our faith, would be elected president of the United States.

She had grown up knowing anti-Catholic bias and seeing the shadows of “no Irish need apply.” Kennedy’s faith had been a defining issue during that campaign because many who questioned his fitness to serve professed a deep concern that he would report to Rome and be governed by the pope and not by the bedrock principles of our Constitution. Kennedy addressed those impressions in a now-famous speech in Houston in September 1960 when he spoke to more than 300 Methodist ministers. He went on to win.

I thought those days were mercifully behind us until Catholic bishops recently decided to demand that public figures pick faith over constitutional rights in the performance of their public duties, should they conflict. As proud as I am to be a Catholic and as important as my faith has been to my life, the bishops demand what no free people protected by a constitution like ours should ever support.

We are the United States of America, not the Catholic States of America. Joe Biden is being singled out for just doing his job and abiding by his solemn oath to all the American people. The Catholic church has every right to advocate against abortion and encourage its congregants to vote for candidates who share its views but it is a bridge too far to withhold a sacrament from a devout and inspirational Catholic for upholding and enforcing the constitutional guarantees of our nation’s founding document. If Rome allows this to happen, a lot of practicing Catholics may make choices the church will regret and Joe Biden may be the last Catholic president elected in the United States. My mother, were she still here, would cry over that, too, but this time for a different reason.

(John T. Broderick Jr. is a former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and dean of the law school at the UNH.)

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