A divided conference of Roman Catholic bishops in the United States announced on Friday that they will draft a statement on Holy Communion that may admonish Catholic politicians, including President Joe Biden, who support abortion rights.
The 168-55 decision to draft a teaching document on the Eucharist, a holy sacrament in the Roman Catholic faith, came after two hours of debate at the virtual assembly of the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference on June 17, in which the bishops weighed the merits of reaffirming church teachings against the possibility of sowing partisan division.
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The debate this week laid bare some of the cultural and political rifts that have rocked the church in the last several years. US Catholic Church membership has dropped nearly 20 percent in the past two decades, according to a Gallup poll published in March, as sexual abuse scandals involving predatory priests have come to light and members have become increasingly divided on social issues.
Biden is a lifelong and devout Roman Catholic who supports the ability of women in the US to terminate unwanted pregnancies, a core policy position of the US Democratic Party he now leads. Many US Catholics, however, oppose abortion, believing on religious grounds the fetus has a right to life.
The bishops in favour of drafting the document insisted that it would not call out any individual politician by name, but the topic of Biden’s social views came up repeatedly in the discussion. Biden, the second Catholic to serve as US president, has alarmed many bishops by supporting same-sex marriage and abortion rights, views they say are antithetical to church doctrine.
At a White House event on Friday, Biden declined to answer a reporter’s question about the bishops’ decision. “That’s a private matter and I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Biden said.
Some bishops advocating for drafting the document argued they had an obligation to clarify the church’s teachings for all Catholics in light of inconsistencies in the faith and actions of public officials like Biden.
“Almost daily I speak with people, 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,” said Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, Wisconsin, who supported drafting the document.
Opponents said they feared writing the document could sow further partisan division within the church, and that the bishops should take more time to discuss the issue before moving forward.
A Vatican official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, had written the conference in May urging caution on the debate over politicians’ abortion views and Communion, saying it could become a “source of discord”, Catholic News Service reported.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego argued against the drafting of the document, saying the move would run counter to the bishops’ goal of uniting Catholics through the sacrament.
“The Eucharist…will inevitably become a tool in the vicious partisan turmoil that roils our nation. It will be impossible to prevent the weaponization of the Eucharist in partisan battles,” he said.
Exit polls from the 2020 presidential election showed the Catholic vote nearly split between Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump.
Pope Francis congratulated Biden in a phone call after his election win even as some Catholic bishops declined to acknowledge Biden’s ascendance as president because of this support for abortion rights.
The conference’s Committee on Doctrine is now expected to draft the document ahead of a November meeting when the bishops will review an amendable draft.
In 2004, the conference published a statement that said individual bishops could decide whether to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights.