The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States, flouting a warning from the Vatican, have overwhelmingly voted to draft guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist, advancing a push by conservative bishops to deny President Joe Biden communion because of his support of abortion rights.
The decision, made public Friday afternoon, is aimed at the nation’s second Catholic president, perhaps the most religiously observant commander in chief since Jimmy Carter, and exposes bitter divisions in American Catholicism. It capped three days of contentious debate at a virtual June meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The measure was approved by a vote of 73% in favor and 24% opposed.
The Eucharist, also called Holy Communion, is one of the most sacred rituals in Christianity, and bishops have grown worried in recent years about declining Mass attendance and misunderstanding of the importance of the sacrament to Catholic life.
But the move to target a president, who regularly attends Mass and has spent a lifetime steeped in Christian rituals and practices, is striking coming from leaders of the president’s own faith, particularly after many conservative Catholics turned a blind eye to the sexual improprieties of former President Donald Trump because they supported his political agenda. It reveals a uniquely American Catholicism increasingly at odds with Rome and Pope Francis.
Asked about the bishops’ decision at a vaccination event Friday, Biden said it was “a private matter and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
The action is the latest sign of how the nation’s bitter political divisions are shaping religious life. Christians across denominations are facing similar divides. Earlier this week at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, a more moderate majority narrowly headed off a takeover attempt by a hard-right movement.
The text of the proposal itself has not been written, and would ultimately require approval by a two-thirds majority vote. The proposed outline, earlier reported by America Magazine, said it would “include the theological foundation for the Church’s discipline concerning the reception of Holy Communion and a special call for those Catholics who are cultural, political, or parochial leaders to witness the faith.”
Some conservatives want to use such a statement as theological justification to deny communion to Biden and Catholic politicians like him who support abortion rights.
The decision immediately drew criticism from 60 Catholic Democrats in Congress, who urged the bishops “to not move forward and deny this most holy of all sacraments” and who challenged the bishops by outlining their own commitment to “making real the basic principles that are at the heart of Catholic social teaching.”
But the fact that Biden’s views on abortion are even a matter of public discussion is already a victory for conservative Catholics.
Biden, like Pope Francis, embodies a liberal Christianity focused less on sexual politics and more on racial inequality, climate change and poverty. His administration is a reversal of the power that opponents of abortion, including bishops who advanced the measure, enjoyed under Trump.
The fight comes as anti-abortion activists across the United States are emboldened and as reproductive rights activists want Biden to speak more forcefully in their defense. State legislatures have introduced more than 500 abortion restrictions over the past five months, and the Supreme Court, with its newly expanded conservative majority, agreed to take up a case on a Mississippi law that bans most abortions at 15 weeks, which could challenge the constitutional right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade. There are six Catholic justices on the court, five of whom were appointed by Republicans.
The bishops are expected to vote on the forthcoming statement in November, before the midterm elections, giving conservatives a tool to criticize Democratic politicians throughout the campaign cycle. Abortion has long been one of the most mobilizing political forces for the religious right.
That subtext was made plain as the bishops debated the topic for more than two hours Thursday: “I can’t help but wonder if the years 2022 and 2024 might be part of the rush,” Bishop Robert Coerver of Lubbock, Texas, said.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades, who leads the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, which put forward the communion effort, replied in a news conference that the upcoming midterm and presidential elections “never entered my mind, or the committee’s.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, an assembly of the country’s 433 active and retired bishops, can issue guideline statements, but it does not have the authority to decide who can or cannot receive the sacrament of communion. That power is reserved for the local bishop, who has autonomy in his diocese, or the pope.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington and the nation’s first African American cardinal, has made it abundantly clear that he does not support denying communion to Biden. Bishop-elect William Koenig of Wilmington, Delaware, Biden’s hometown, has remained largely quiet on the issue before his installation next month.
Usually the bishops’ annual June meeting is a dry affair. But this week’s was the most riveting in years, not only because of the topic but also because it revealed the stark divide, theologically and politically, among the church’s U.S. leaders.
The vote was technically about drafting a theological statement on the Eucharist, and in part comes from the bishops’ long-term strategic plan to address declining Mass attendance and misunderstanding about the sacrament.
Bishops grew alarmed about communion in 2019, before Biden was a front-runner in the presidential race, when a Pew poll found that only about one-third of U.S. Catholics believed central Catholic teaching that the communion bread and wine literally becomes the body and blood of Christ during Mass.
But debates over two days this week revealed the political contours of the fight, as bishop after bishop defended his corner of a polarized American Catholicism.
The meeting opened Wednesday with a 45-minute debate over whether to even approve the agenda because it would include the controversial vote. A retired bishop, Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, in Texas, urged the conference to address the “new abortion initiatives of our president, especially the one about infanticide.” (Biden does not support infanticide.) Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis attempted what was effectively a filibuster of the communion discussion entirely.
Conservative bishops pressed their case in a more than two-hour debate Thursday afternoon. “We’ve never had a situation like this where the executive is a Catholic president who is opposed to the teaching of the church,” Bishop Liam Cary of Baker, in Oregon, said.
Bishops from places like Tyler, Texas, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, argued that the people in their churches wanted bishops to create the communion document. Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, in Wisconsin, said he speaks almost daily with Catholics “who are confused by the fact that we have a president who professes devout Catholicism and yet advances the most radical, pro-abortion agenda in our history.”
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, the home diocese of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is Catholic and a Democrat, said bishops would not be taken seriously if they did not create the communion document. “Our credibility is on the line,” he said. “The eyes of the whole country are on us right now.”
Bishops seen as allies of Francis’ direction for the church pushed back. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego cautioned that moving forward would make it “impossible to prevent the weaponization of the Eucharist in partisan battles.”
“Once we legitimate public-policy-based Eucharistic exclusion as a regular part of our teaching office — and that is the road to which we are headed — we will invite all of the political animosities that so tragically divide our nation into the very heart of the Eucharistic celebration,” he said. “That sacrament which seeks to make us one will become for millions of Catholics a sign of division.”
When Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima, in Washington state, asked if the debate was focusing on abortion to the exclusion of other issues on which public figures might disagree with the Church’s teachings, Rhoades blamed the publicity for overly focusing on abortion instead of other issues like human trafficking and white supremacy.
About 56% of U.S. Catholics support legalized abortion, but about two-thirds of Catholics who attend Mass regularly do not, according a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March.
Catholics in general are divided on party lines over whether Biden should receive communion: 55% of Catholic Republicans think he should be denied communion, and 87% of Catholic Democrats think he should not, according to Pew.
The tension in the church’s U.S. hierarchy over Biden’s abortion policies has been growing for months. Shortly after Biden’s election in November, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the unusual creation of a working group to address conflicts that could arise between his administration’s policies and church teaching.
On Inauguration Day, Gomez issued a statement criticizing Biden for policies “that would advance moral evils” especially “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”
Biden and Francis have been political allies for years, especially because of the partnership between the Vatican and the U.S. during President Barack Obama’s tenure on issues like the normalization of relations with Cuba and the Paris climate agreement.
Last month Francis’ top doctrinal official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, warned the U.S. bishops in a letter that a policy on communion as relates to politicians could “become a source of discord rather than unity.”
The debate will grow in the months ahead, as the doctrine committee moves forward. The document will be one for all Catholics, not individuals, Rhoades told the bishops this week.
“We need to accept the church’s discipline that those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion,” he said.
But, he added, “We haven’t even written it yet.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.