U.S. bishops are set Wednesday to open a controversial and divisive debate over whether President Biden, just the second Catholic president in U.S. history, and other politicians should be denied communion based on their stance on abortion.

There will not be a formal vote on whether to deny Biden and other pro-abortion rights Catholic politicians communion on Wednesday, but the actions at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s (USCCB) three-day June General Assembly could lead to such a vote. 

The bishops will debate and vote on Thursday about whether to task a committee on doctrine to start a teaching document on the Holy Eucharist, which would include if it should be denied for high-profile politicians who support abortion rights. 

The document would then be up for debate, subject to amendments and voted on at the group’s next meeting in November.  

It promises to be a testy discussion on a sensitive issue that is dividing people from the top of the Vatican, with some bishops eager to make an example of Biden and others warning this would weaponize the Holy Communion. 

Pope Francis this week cautioned American bishops against denying communion to politicians and warned that communion can’t be used as a political weapon. The group is moving ahead with their debate, despite the pope’s warning.

“There really is a tension between bishops and that tension has always existed in the USCCB, it’s always been there. It’s just a question of what is predominant,” said Margaret Susan Thompson, professor of history and political science at the Maxwell School Syracuse University. 

It follows decades of debate on abortion politics and communion, an issue elevated by Biden’s election. This is the first meeting of the U.S. bishops since Biden entered office. 

Catholic public figures with pro-abortion rights stances, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry, have previously been in the spotlight. 

Now it is centered on Biden, a centrist in the Senate who has embraced progressive politics in office. The Catholic bishops group in the U.S. is headed by a conservative, José Gomez, the archbishop of Los Angeles. 

“It happens that there is an archconservative as the president of the bishops’ conference right now. That’s not always the case. The coinciding of a relatively progressive Catholic president and an archconservative head of the bishops’ conference is part of the reason this conflict is happening now,” said Paul Elie, author and senior fellow with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.  

Gomez issued a statement on Inauguration Day to congratulate Biden, as well as criticize his stance on abortion. Gomez then decided to form a working group on topics where there are disagreements and agreements with the incoming Biden administration, including abortion.  

“Archbishop Gomez strikes me, as an outsider, that he is pretty well-respected among bishops,” said Chris Ruddy, professor of systematic theology at Catholic University. “He wants the bishops, he wants his brothers, to be united. My guess would be is he’s aware that the presidential issue is the leading issue here, but my guess is he’s concerned with the effects of this on the life of the church as a whole.” 

Gomez is more conservative than the two leaders of the church who Biden interacts with and receives communion from the most: Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., and retiring Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Del.  

Both have said Biden can receive communion in their jurisdictions. Wilmington’s incoming bishop, Monsignor William Koenig, has not taken a public stance.

The bishops group is largely divided on how to deal with Biden’s faith.  

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago tweeted on Inauguration Day that Gomez’s statement was “ill-considered” and crafted without the involvement of the other bishops.  

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., chair of the group’s committee on anti-abortion activities, said in March that Biden’s pro-abortion rights position was a “grave moral evil.” 

“I think the disposition of the different Bishops on this issue … has to do with temperament, techniques, personal history and their own judgment about what the best way to get the work of the church done is,” Elie said. 

It would take a simple majority of bishops to vote that a committee has to start a teaching document on the issue of abortion and communion. Church law doesn’t allow for national policies, so even if, following the release of the teaching document, the USCCB votes to deny pro-abortion rights politicians communion, it would need approval from the Vatican, which is highly unlikely. 

The Vatican sent a letter to Gomez in May, advising the USCCB to preserve unity when discussing abortion issues and that it should not lead to divisions.  

Sixty-seven percent of U.S. adults who identify as Catholic say Biden should be allowed to receive communion during Mass, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in May. 

The White House has been careful with talking about abortion, touting Biden’s commitment to women’s reproductive health but generally avoiding using the word itself.  

The Supreme Court in May agreed to hear a case involving a Mississippi law that could weaken the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade nearly half a century ago. When asked about it, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that Biden is devoted to ensuring that every American has access to health care and reproductive health care and committed to codifying Roe v. Wade. 

Anti-abortion advocates around the country are planning rallies for Wednesday to show their support for denying Biden communion in response of these stances.  

Students for Life of America is leading seven rallies in locations where bishops lead the church. 

“I think this is an important issue for Christians, especially Catholic Christians across the country, because the church teaching is extremely clear and have said this is a non-negotiable issue with the church. This is something that every Christian, every Catholic, should understand that supporting abortion in incapable with faithful practice of Christianity,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. 

The Students for Life of America see denying communion to Biden as fair because of his high-profile status, Hawkins explained. 

“We specifically wanted to make sure that Cardinal Gregory … heard from us,” she said, referring to the cardinal in D.C. “When it comes to high-ranking politicians, they give them special privilege or something, or a special pass, and it’s completely outrageous.”

Tags Jen Psaki Joe Biden John Kerry Nancy Pelosi Pope Francis
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