BALTIMORE — The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States backed away from a direct conflict with President Biden on Wednesday, approving a new document on the sacrament of the Eucharist that does not mention the president or any politicians by name.
At issue was the question of which Catholics, under which circumstances, are properly able to receive Communion, one of the most sacred rites within Christianity. For some conservative Catholics, the real question was more pointed: Should Catholic politicians who publicly support and advance abortion rights be denied the sacrament?
Though the document shied away from explicitly challenging Biden, its very existence highlighted a divide between conservative American bishops and the Vatican, and pitted some of the nation’s most powerful prelates against the country’s Catholic president.
It also illuminated sprawling rifts among ordinary American Catholics, falling along lines that have become familiar since the presidency of Donald Trump scrambled both political and religious loyalties. An emboldened Catholic right wing, including media outlets and activist groups, now feels increasingly free to antagonize Pope Francis and his agenda.
The document, approved overwhelmingly, was the result of a contentious meeting in June, when the US Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to draft the guidance after hours of debate. That vote was a victory for conservative bishops who have depicted Biden in particular as a grave threat to the church. On Inauguration Day in January, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the conference’s president, issued a statement characterizing the new president as advancing policies that “advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”
This time, bishops took their debates over the issue behind closed doors in an executive session the evening before the vote.
Though the new guidance does not single out individuals, it does emphasize the obligation of Catholic public figures to demonstrate moral consistency between their personal faith and their public actions. “Lay people who exercise some form of public authority” have a special responsibility to “serve the human family by upholding human life and dignity,” the document states. And it says that bishops have a “special responsibility” to address situations in which there is a gap between public actions and church teaching.
Pope Francis has not officially weighed in, but he maintains a warm relationship with Biden, who is the country’s second Catholic president and attends Mass regularly. In October, the pope welcomed the president to the Vatican for a private meeting. Biden told reporters afterward that the pope had called him a “good Catholic” and that he should continue receiving Communion. Biden received Communion at St. Patrick’s Church in Rome the next day.
Asked about the Communion issue by reporters in September, the pope remarked that “I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone,” though he noted that he had not knowingly been presented with the dilemma.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s representative to the US, referenced the discord in an address to the group Tuesday. “There is the temptation to treat the Eucharist as something to be offered to the privileged few,” he said, echoing the pope’s maxim that the sacrament is not a “prize for the perfect.”
The document approved Wednesday does not address the question of public figures’ right to the Eucharist head-on as some had hoped — and others feared. And the 29-page guidance barely mentions the word “abortion.”
Instead, it offers a detailed examination of the theological and spiritual significance of the Eucharist, in which Catholics believe that bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ.
The meeting in Baltimore was the first in-person general assembly of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops since 2019. Last year’s meeting was canceled as a precaution during the coronavirus pandemic. In June, the bishops convened virtually.
The weeks leading up to the meeting were roiled by conflict. In early November, Gomez delivered a speech in which he dismissed social justice movements and “wokeness” as dangerous false religions. The speech, delivered virtually to the Congress of Catholics and Public Life, drew a sharp backlash from some scholars and progressive Catholics.
In an opening address at the meeting Tuesday, Gomez struck a less inflammatory tone, asking how the church can engage an increasingly secular country. He lamented a breakdown of a shared national “story” that was “rooted in a biblical worldview and the values of our Judeo-Christian heritage.” The speech received a standing ovation from the bishops in Baltimore.
The new document emphasizes the distinction between categories of sins and reminds Catholics that they should not receive Communion in a state of mortal sin — a grave offense committed willingly — without first going to confession and receiving absolution.
The text quotes from a 2007 text known as the Aparecida Document, named for a gathering of bishops in Central and South America and issued by a committee headed by Pope Francis himself, who was then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. That document has come to be read as a foundational text of his approach. And it contains sharp words for “legislators, heads of government and health professionals” who violate church teaching on abortion and other “grave crimes against life and family.” Catholics in such positions of influence may not receive Communion, it says.
In May, the Vatican warned the US bishops in a letter that they should engage in “extensive and serene dialogue” before drafting the document, cautioning that the vote could “become a source of discord rather than unity.”
Conservatives described the result as a document that points to the importance of maintaining standards around the Eucharist. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who has been sharply critical of Biden, said that although the document did not name names, it “does acknowledge that not everyone should just walk up and receive.”