In October 2019, we received multiple inquiries from readers about the accuracy of news reports that claimed former Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden had been refused communion by a Catholic priest in South Carolina on the basis of Biden's support for abortion rights.
The story was covered by several major national news outlets but originated in a statement sent to the Florence Morning News by Robert Morey, a priest in the Catholic parish of St. Anthony in Florence, South Carolina. On Oct. 28, the Morning News reported that:
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential race, was denied Holy Communion on Sunday morning at a Florence church. Father Robert E. Morey of Saint Anthony Catholic Church confirmed Monday afternoon that he had denied the presidential candidate Holy Communion because of his stance on abortion. Biden, a lifelong Catholic, had attended the church’s 9 a.m. Mass...
“Sadly, this past Sunday, I had to refuse Holy Communion to former Vice President Joe Biden,” Morey told the Morning News via email. “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.”
Morey said that as a priest, it is his responsibility to minister to those souls entrusted to his care and that he must do so in even the most difficult situations. “I will keep Mr. Biden in my prayers,” Morey added.
Asked by Snopes to confirm, deny, or clarify Morey's account, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign declined to comment on the story. Biden himself did likewise on Oct. 29, during an interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell, saying, "I'm not going to discuss that, that's just my personal life and I'm not going to get into that at all."
In the Catholic tradition, Holy Communion (or eucharist) is an important rite that symbolizes the Last Supper and the sacrifice made by Christ on the cross, with communicants receiving the "body and blood" of Christ (sacramental bread or wafer and sacramental wine).
In a typical Catholic mass, the eucharist is the portion of the liturgy during which mass-goers are most openly visible to each other. Those who are receiving communion (and are physically able) leave their seats and stand in a line leading to the altar, where a priest or bishop, or a specially designated layperson, administers the sacrament by placing the host (consecrated bread) either in their hand or on their tongue.
If Morey refused Biden communion at the altar (that is, at the point where the communicant receives the host), it's quite likely this denial would have been seen by others in attendance at the mass. To a devout Catholic, such a gesture would likely be extremely embarrassing and deeply wounding.
However, no witness accounts or other corroborating evidence have so far emerged. That doesn't mean the incident did not occur. It's perfectly plausible, for example, that Morey might have gone to Biden or his aides before mass started and quietly informed them he would not administer communion to him. In that way, the refusal would not have been witnessed by a third party.
We put a series of questions to Morey requesting details about the sequence of events, including whether any third parties actually witnessed his purportedly refusing Biden the eucharist. Unfortunately, despite repeated attempts to contact Morey, we did not receive a response of any kind.
We also contacted the Diocese of Charleston, the administrative subdivision of the church that oversees Morey's parish, asking several questions and attempting to obtain information or details that might corroborate and verify Morey's account. A spokesperson for the diocese did not respond to our questions but instead repeatedly directed us to Morey himself.
Morey's account, which was the sole basis of the multiple news reports that followed, remains unverified. The alleged other party in the purported incident, Biden, is declining to comment and therefore has not confirmed anything, and neither Morey nor his employer, the diocese, responded to our requests for further information.
Furthermore, we cannot rule out the possibility that Morey might have fabricated or exaggerated or misrepresented the incident in some way based on a preexisting ideological antipathy towards Biden or the Democratic party.
First, Morey's very explanation of his purported actions ("Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching") clearly indicates at the very least a strong, preexisting disagreement with Biden, on his part, with regard to reproductive-health issues.
Second, Morey has in the recent past made donations to Republican political campaigns — contributing to the presidential primary campaign of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2015, and to the primary campaign of then-U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, in 2011. We found no record of Morey having contributed to Democratic candidates. This indicates clear, preexisting support, on Morey's part, for the political party opposite to Biden's.
Those facts might not have any significance, and Morey might well have been entirely accurate in his account. However, such background details necessarily mean it is appropriate to reserve judgement on the accuracy of what he presented as having happened, and therefore we rate the claim that he refused Biden communion "Unproven." If information emerges that corroborates Morey's account, we will update this fact check accordingly.
A controversial tradition with a disputed basis
Church leaders and clergy members in the United States have, from time to time, refused the eucharist to pro-choice politicians (or threatened to refuse it). In 2004, Catholic bishops warned Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry that he would be denied communion based on his political support for abortion rights and stem cell research, which the church also opposes.
In 2008, the Bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Joseph Martino, made various statements suggesting that then vice-presidential candidate Biden, a native of the city, should be barred (or should refrain) from taking communion, based on his support for abortion rights. Martino also suggested that anyone within the diocese of Scranton who even voted for the Obama-Biden ticket should not receive communion.
The following year, Martino went so far as to suggest that U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, was not "worthy to receive communion." Casey is famously an avowedly pro-life Democrat, one of very few in national politics, but his purported malfeasance in that instance was voting in the Senate to confirm Kathleen Sebelius, who holds strong pro-choice views, as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
These interventions might suggest that the Catholic church has a clear-cut policy on the question of refusing communion to pro-choice politicians, and that there is a straightforward, linear relationship between professing views that go against church teaching, and being denied the sacraments. The reality is much more complicated, and Morey — if he did refuse Biden communion — may even have violated church law himself.
Catholic doctrine forbids abortion. The church's catechism states:
"Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life ... Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law."
Canon law explicitly states that anyone who procures an abortion (or directly assists in one, such as a doctor) is automatically excommunicated, and therefore ineligible to receive the sacraments, including communion. (Canon 1398: "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.")
However, the question of whether a Catholic public figure who supports or advocates for abortion rights can be excommunicated or denied communion, within the tenets of Church law, is the subject of significant dispute within the Catholic church. It's not a debate we'll outline in this article, but good introductory explanations of the legal and doctrinal principles involved can be found here, here and here.
Canon 912 of the Code of Canon Law states that, "Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion." This places an obligation on a clergy member or eucharistic minister to administer the sacrament of communion unless the person seeking it has, according to Canon 915, "been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty" or is "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin."
We asked Morey for his precise reasoning in purportedly denying Biden communion, and we also asked the diocese of Charleston whether Morey had, in the view of the diocese, acted in accordance with canon law, if he did refuse Biden the sacrament, and whether (in Morey's words) "advocating for abortion" was officially sufficient grounds, in the diocese of Charleston, for being denied communion. Furthermore we asked both Morey and the diocese whether he had acted independently or under instruction from someone else within the church hierarchy.
Neither Morey nor the diocese answered any of our questions, and a spokesperson for the diocese repeatedly referred our questions to Morey, even though it was pointed out to them that some of those questions were specific to the diocese.
News reports in October 2019 claimed that a Catholic priest in South Carolina, Robert Morey, had refused Biden communion on Sunday, Oct. 27. The only source for that claim was a statement written by the priest himself.
Morey might well have given an accurate account of what took place that morning, but we cannot verify its accuracy for several reasons: The only other party to the alleged incident was Biden, and he has declined to comment; no witnesses have so far publicly corroborated Morey's account; we asked Morey and his employer, the Charleston diocese, to provide further corroborating details, but they failed to do so; and Morey's past political contributions and strong, pre-existing disagreement with Biden on abortion rights mean that a plausible motive exists, in principle, for Morey to seek to embarrass or harm Biden's reputation, although we have no specific evidence that those factors did, in fact, inform Morey's actions.
Until and unless we receive information that corroborates Morey's account, we are issuing a rating of "Unproven."