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In Communion debate, will Cardinal O’Malley find middle ground?

The US Conference of Bishops’ statement gave conservative Catholics a way to repudiate the pope and try to hurt Catholic politicians. It also puts pressure on cardinals like Sean O’Malley.

A person receives Holy Communion on Easter.
A person receives Holy Communion on Easter.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

What if President Biden attended Mass in Boston? Would Cardinal Seán O’Malley — a past chair of the US Conference of Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities — deny him Communion because this Catholic president backs legalized abortion?

We shall see, but probably not. Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the cardinal — and the brother of Biden senior adviser Michael Donilon — said O’Malley will release a statement “over the next couple of days” that will include “his reflections on the broader issue of the Eucharist.” But in 2004, when John Kerry was running for president and Communion became an issue, O’Malley said Kerry shouldn’t receive Communion, but denying him shouldn’t be a public act. O’Malley’s position then was “when people come forward to receive Communion, we give them Communion. The moment of Communion is not the moment in which to raise the question of whether someone should or should not be receiving it.”


I’m a nonpracticing Catholic because of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and disagreements over abortion and gay marriage. Denying Communion to Catholic dissidents who still go to Mass is a cruel but compelling way to make a point. O’Malley chose another course with Kerry. Maybe that happens when rigid ideology crashes up against ambivalence over the right to judge fellow humans, especially powerful ones.

Last week, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to draft a “statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.” Out of that language came dire headlines about a future document that would give bishops the right to play God and withhold the most important sacrament from Catholic Democrats. What’s more likely: If you’re president, receiving Communion remains a matter of finding friendly priests and avoiding unfriendly ones. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., and Bishop Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Del. — who head the two dioceses where Biden resides — have already said they have no plans to deny him Communion.


In the meantime, abortion is a useful tool for conservatives who want to stir up rancor. Donilon would not say how O’Malley voted on the resolution to draft Communion guidelines. But O’Malley was one of more than 60 bishops who signed a letter urging a delay in taking it up. Pope Francis also tried unsuccessfully to derail the vote.

While it occurred anyway, the initial mission was watered down. As O’Malley recently blogged, “[E]arly on, there were some who envisioned the document as dealing with public figures and the reception of the Eucharist.” But “the Committee on Doctrine has adjusted it to avoid focusing on categories of individuals but trying to develop a theological document around the Eucharist and the question of preparedness and Eucharistic consistency.”

So what happened seems more symbolic than substantive. It gave conservative Catholics a way to repudiate Francis and try to hurt Catholic politicians. It also puts pressure on cardinals like O’Malley.

When he was criticized for presiding over Senator Ted Kennedy’s funeral in 2009, O’Malley blogged, “We must show those who do not share our belief about life that we care about them. We will stop the practice of abortion by changing the law, and we will be successful in changing the law if we change people’s hearts. We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief and loss.”


At times, he sounds less forgiving. According to NewBostonPost, a conservative online news outlet, O’Malley told a gathering at a Night 4 Life event in Quincy on June 17, “The Holy Father asks us to dialogue with Catholic politicians who sometimes don’t have the courage of their convictions. And so many of them say, ‘Oh Cardinal, I can’t impose my Catholic faith on someone else.’ But life is a precious gift. Life is not just us imposing our Catholic faith on someone, but defending an innocent human life whose life is being threatened. It’s a matter of human rights and we all need to have the courage to defend human rights — especially when humanity is most vulnerable.”

By putting the onus on Catholic politicians rather than on himself, O’Malley looks like he’s searching for middle ground. But when it comes to abortion and the Catholic Church, it’s hard, if not impossible, to find.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.