On July 21 2021, viral content site Upworthy published “Catholic leader who wanted to deny Biden communion resigns after caught using gay dating app,” asserting:
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved a measure last month [June 2021] that could pave the way for the Catholic Church to deny President Joe Biden communion. The conservative bishops hope to prevent Biden from participating in the sacred ritual because of his support for abortion rights.
The measure was strongly supported by Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, the general secretary of the USCCB, but he’s been forced to step down due to some serious allegations about his private life. Burrill, a priest from Wisconsin, worked for the USCCB for the past five years and was elected general secretary last year [in 2020].
Upworthy provided no specific source to support the claim Burrill sought to deny Biden Catholic communion, but the site did embed a tweet:
Although the headline hinted at a direct chain of events (Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill intending to prevent U.S. President Joe Biden from receiving communion before resigning due to a scandal), the text of the attached article suggested a slightly more vague association between Burrill and Biden’s standing with the Catholic Church. Overall, the topic involved a few discrete topics.
What’s Going on with President Biden, the Catholic Church, and Communion?
Biden’s habit of wearing the rosary beads of his late son Beau Biden was the subject of speculation in mid-2020 (such as when the beads were mistaken by conspiracy theorists for a “wrist wire.”) As for Biden’s ability to receive communion during Mass, that particular issue did not emerge in 2021.
In October 2019 (before Biden received the Democratic nomination for 2020), CNN reported that former Biden had been denied communion at a service due to his support for abortion rights:
Former Vice President Joe Biden was denied communion [on October 27 2019] at a Catholic church in South Carolina over his support for abortion rights.
Father Robert Morey, the pastor at Saint Anthony Catholic Church in Florence, told the Florence Morning News that he had denied Biden communion because “any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.”
“Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church. Our actions should reflect that,” Morey said in an email to the newspaper. He said that “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. I will keep Mr. Biden in my prayers.”
CNN explained that Biden was not the first politician to have their political views clash with the church. Moreover, Biden was denied communion in Scranton in 2008:
In 2004, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former St. Louis archbishop, said he would not give communion to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. He said his view, which was controversial at the time, was that the sacrament must be protected from someone “who knows that he or she is unworthy and yet presumes to come forward and to take the Holy Eucharist.”
In 2008, Bishop Joseph Francis Martino of Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, said Biden would be denied communion in the Scranton diocese over his support for abortion rights.
In 2016, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, then the Democratic vice presidential nominee, faced criticism from individual priests over his positions on abortion, same-sex marriage and gender equality.
On November 3 2019, USA Today published an editorial by a contributor lauding the decision to deny Biden communion:
But some Catholics can become callous to concerns of family, friends, or pastors. This is always distressing to everyone involved. The situation is worsened in the Church’s view when a person is publicly obstinate in grave sin and insists that there’s nothing immoral about what they do. Canon 915 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law requires those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
The reason the Church might bar such persons from Holy Communion is precisely because their sin is not only grave but it’s also public (i.e., “manifest”) and they’re obstinate in holding it. Such a person is no longer living in communion with the Church, so allowing this person to receive Holy Communion would also be a lie.
Two days later, another theologian published an editorial about then-prominent discourse about Biden’s status within the Catholic Church. Biden’s political positions had at times clashed with those of the Church, as had other prominent Catholic Democrats.
Who is Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, and Did He Want to Deny Biden Communion?
On November 17 2021, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) announced that Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill was elected as their General Secretary:
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) met November 16-17 for their Fall General Assembly, which convened in a virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. bishops elected Monsignor Jeffrey D. Burrill, S.T.L., as General Secretary of the USCCB.
Monsignor Burrill has served as Associate General Secretary of USCCB since February 2016. In that position, he has served as administrator of the USCCB’s pastoral offices and as a member of the executive staff.
One of the results was a press release (“USCCB President’s Statement on the Inauguration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., as 46th President of the United States of America”) published on January 20 2021, the day on which Biden was inaugurated. Notably, the tone of the post was friendly and optimistic, and it read in part:
I look forward to working with President Biden and his administration, and the new Congress. As with every administration, there will be areas where we agree and work closely together and areas where we will have principled disagreement and strong opposition.
Working with President Biden will be unique, however, as he is our first president in 60 years to profess the Catholic faith. In a time of growing and aggressive secularism in American culture, when religious believers face many challenges, it will be refreshing to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions. Mr. Biden’s piety and personal story, his moving witness to how his faith has brought him solace in times of darkness and tragedy, his longstanding commitment to the Gospel’s priority for the poor — all of this I find hopeful and inspiring.
“Abortion” was mentioned directly thereafter, and not in the context of communion:
At the same time, as pastors, the nation’s bishops are given the duty of proclaiming the Gospel in all its truth and power, in season and out of season, even when that teaching is inconvenient or when the Gospel’s truths run contrary to the directions of the wider society and culture. So, I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.
Rather than impose further expansions of abortion and contraception, as he has promised, I am hopeful that the new President and his administration will work with the Church and others of good will. My hope is that we can begin a dialogue to address the complicated cultural and economic factors that are driving abortion and discouraging families. My hope, too, is that we can work together to finally put in place a coherent family policy in this country, one that acknowledges the crucial importance of strong marriages and parenting to the well-being of children and the stability of communities. If the President, with full respect for the Church’s religious freedom, were to engage in this conversation, it would go a long way toward restoring the civil balance and healing our country’s needs.
Of the two results on the USCCB site for “Biden” and “Communion,” one was a resource entry for Poverty Awareness Month. The other was a transcript titled “Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann – Opening Mass, 2021 National Prayer Vigil for Life.”
“Communion” was mentioned three times, none of which were a reference to Biden:
In a few moments, those assembled in the Basilica will come forward to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist. Sometimes, Catholics are accused of being inhospitable because we do not invite non-Catholics to join us in receiving Holy Communion.
We do this, not to be exclusive, but out of respect for those who do not share our Catholic Faith. When a baptized Christian, after prayer and reflection, is received into Full Communion with the Catholic Church, they make the following profession: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.”
Each time we come to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, the priest says: “The Body of Christ.” The recipient replies: “Amen.” Our Amen expresses not only our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist but also our belief in the Church that Our Lord empowered to make Himself present through the Blessed Sacrament.
Biden’s name was also mentioned three times, and Archbishop Naumann said in part:
Sadly, President Biden is the perfect example of the religiously and ethically incoherent straddle: claiming to believe that human life begins at conception and personally opposing abortion, while doing everything within his power to promote and institutionalize abortion not only in the USA but also around the world.
Archbishop Jose Gomez’s Statement on the day of the Inauguration of President Biden was a great example for all of us. Violence and disrespect for others are not consistent with the Gospel of Life.
Pope St. John Paul taught the essence of the Gospel of Life was the value that Jesus placed upon each and every human life on Calvary. Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified so that each of us could receive mercy and share in His abundant and eternal life … We must pray and fast that the President will have the integrity to acknowledge that his actions in seeking to codify Roe V. Wade and impose tax funded abortion violate the most fundamental of all human rights. We must pray and fast that the President will cease attempting to confuse people about Catholic teaching by trampling on the sanctity of human life while presenting himself as a devout Catholic.
The people of the United States have entrusted enormous power and responsibility to President Biden. However, the Presidency does not empower him to define Catholic doctrine and moral teaching.
The archbishop explained that Biden’s political stance on abortion clashed with that of the Catholic Church — but he did not call for Biden to be prevented from receiving communion. On May 7 2021, the separate site National Catholic Reporter published letters to the editor on the topic:
Your thoughts on denying Biden Communion
Panelists for Villanova University’s “Taking Measure of the ‘Biden Effect’: American Catholics and the President” joined the intensifying debate within the U.S. church about whether President Joe Biden should be barred from Communion over his support for legal abortion. Letters to the editor from NCR readers responding to this report follow. The letters have been edited for length and clarity.
An April 27 2021 article on the same site (“Villanova conference elevates calls for Biden to be denied Communion”) was linked in the story. Burrill was not mentioned by name in that lengthy article, and National Catholic Reporter linked to a series of articles called “Bishops, Biden, and Communion.”
One entry, dated July 1 2021, was a piece with the headline, “Why was bishops’ vote on Communion document secret?”, indicating that readers had asked for information on the manner in which specific USCCB members voted on the abortion and Communion issue, adding:
We receive lots of letters, emails and social media comments from readers, and thanks to the U.S. bishops’ controversial decision to move forward with a document on the Eucharist — a document that originated with a working group concerned about Joe Biden’s positions on abortion — our mailboxes and inboxes are full … one question came up over and over again in these correspondences: Which bishops supported it, and which did not?
We know that 168 bishops voted in favor, 55 against and six abstained. But who voted which way?
“I want to know how my bishop voted,” wrote one reader.
Could we please “flush out the names of the bishops and how they voted to push forward the Communion document?” asked another.
“I — and I am sure many of your readers — have letters to send to these wrong-headed and clearly non-Christian prelates telling them ‘what for,’ ” pleaded another.
My answer to all these folks, sadly, is that the voting on this matter was done by a secret ballot, so I am unable to tell them how individual bishops voted. Probably not the answer they were looking for.
A June 24 2021 editorial, “If you hear that Catholics want to deny Biden Communion, check the details,” concluded:
When Pew asked a more direct and relevant question about whether specifically “Biden” should be “allowed to receive Communion,” only 40% of weekly Mass attendees said no. That is 34 points lower than what others are now claiming based on CatholicVote’s poll. This massive difference is surely in large part due to the fact that the question of whether an unnamed politician should theoretically present oneself for Communion is not the same as whether the bishops should actually withhold Communion from Biden himself.
Finally, the survey results grabbing all the attention are hard to reconcile with other findings in the same poll. For example, respondents are also asked if Biden is doing a good job as president. In a poll of observant Catholics who largely think the bishops should deny the president Communion, you might expect his approval numbers to be pretty low. But 56% say he’s doing just fine. Go figure.
If we are to trust CatholicVote’s poll, an odd conclusion seems to be that most Mass-going Catholics respect Biden, despite his pro-choice position. I doubt that’s the finding CatholicVote was hoping for.
Another report in the series indicated that “[less than] three months after the formation of a controversial working group to deal with President Joe Biden, the nation’s Catholic bishops have disbanded the group” on February 2021, referencing a piece published about the “working group” on November 17 2021. November 17 2021 is the same date Burrill’s election was announced.
Reporting on Biden’s recent election and the Church’s response evidenced a strong level of support for Biden’s presidency, far from a consensus opposing him. Abortion was routinely mentioned across the series, but we were unable to locate any specific public commentary from Burrill regarding Biden and communion.
What About Burrill’s Resignation?
As noted above, Upworthy embedded a tweet claiming that “Burrill wanted to deny Biden communion because Biden supports women’s rights,” and that tweet linked to a July 21 2021 New York Daily News article about his resignation:
A top U.S. Catholic Church official has resigned after a Catholic news site revealed that cellphone data suggested that he used the gay hookup app Grindr “on a nearly-daily basis during parts of 2018, 2019 and 2020,” and also visited gay bars “in numerous cities.”
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, the now-former general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference, announced his resignation on Tuesday [July 20 2021], according to a memo written by archbishop José Gomez.
“It is with sadness that I inform you that Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill has resigned as General Secretary of the Conference,” Gomez wrote to all U.S. bishops.
“On Monday [July 19 2021], we became aware of impending media reports alleging possible improper behavior by Msgr. Burrill. What was shared with us did not include allegations of misconduct with minors. However, in order to avoid becoming a distraction to the operations and ongoing work of the Conference, Monsignor has resigned effective immediately,” the archbishop added.
In spite of the content of the tweet, the New York Daily News made no mention of Biden, Communion, or the USCCB’s ongoing debate in the article. The angle painting Burrill as a hypocrite for purportedly seeking to deny Biden Catholic communion was clearly popular, but the outlet didn’t allude to it at all (and the claim appeared to originate with social media rumors).
New York Daily News cited a Catholic news source regarding the circumstances of Burrill’s resignation. That initial report made no mention of Biden or communion, either.
Removing the date restriction on a Google search for Burrill’s name and “communion” highlighted content suggesting that Burrill did indeed seek to deny Biden Communion, before resigning due to the allegations he used Grindr:
Simplistic but highly shareable claims that Catholic Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill sought to deny Biden Communion before he resigned due to being “caught” using Grindr were popular on social media, as were tweets making the same claim. The story appeared to be a bit more complicated than the headlines suggested, particularly because the Bishops’ votes around denying communion to pro-choice politicians were notoriously secret. Biden was denied Communion as early as 2008, and the Catholic Church’s opposition to his policies came well before Burrill’s November 2020 appointment to a leadership position on the USCCB. We were unable to substantiate the widespread claim that prior to his resignation, Burrill in particular took a stance against Biden receiving communion.