The U.S. Catholic bishops have captured headlines lately for voting to draft a formal statement on the meaning of communion within the church. The move is widely acknowledged as an attempt by hardline clerics to punish President Joe Biden, a pro-choice Catholic, by instructing him not to receive communion or even pressuring clergy to deny it to him.

Thanks to the separation of church and state, religious organizations in the United States have complete freedom to decide how they will conduct their rituals and who gets to take part in them. No one is suggesting otherwise. But because Biden is the first Catholic to occupy the White House since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the bishops’ move against him is seen as political. It’s also sparking a significant backlash within the church. Most American Catholics, like Biden, are pro-choice.

Last week, 60 Democratic members of the House of Representatives who are Catholic were moved by the controversy to issue a Statement of Principles. The document is interesting for its endorsement of secular government and frank acknowledgment that it’s inevitable that political leaders will be in tension with some church teachings.  

“We recognize that no political party is perfectly in accord with all aspects of Church doctrine,” the statement observes. “This fact speaks to the secular nature of American democracy, not the devotion of our democratically elected leaders. Yet we believe we can speak to the fundamental issues that unite us as Catholics and lend our voices to changing the political debate – a debate that often fails to reflect and encompass the depth and complexity of these issues.”

The statement doesn’t explicitly say it, but the reason that tension exists is that elected politicians represent everyone – not just people who share the same religious beliefs. John F. Kennedy – who became the nation’s only other Catholic president – put this well in a famous speech prior to the 1960 election. Kennedy, seeking to disarm allegations that he would slavishly follow church teachings if elected, told religious leaders in Houston, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters – and the church does not speak for me.”

Biden was elected to oversee a nation of 328 million people. They represent every religion conceivable and include a growing number of non-religious people. As Alexander Hamilton once observed, the president “has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction.” His job is entirely secular and does not involve the promotion of any church’s doctrines.

The bishops are free to punish Biden for acknowledging this simple fact. But their decision to do so only feeds the perception that they fail to grasp – or more likely don’t care – about the fundamental American principle that our politicians are not theological enforcers.

Photo: President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden attend a religious service in Washington, D.C.