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Abortion rights, Joe Biden, and communion: The controversy, explained

US Catholic leadership is divided on how to approach pro-choice Catholic politicians.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden attend services at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle with congressional leaders prior to his inauguration ceremony on January 20, 2021.
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In a break from the Vatican and past policy, the American arm of the Roman Catholic Church this week kicked off a process that could eventually sanction the exclusion of President Joe Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president, from receiving holy communion.

On Thursday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which consists of all Catholic bishops in the US and the US Virgin Islands, voted overwhelmingly to draft “a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church” that would clarify church policy on the topic — at least in the US. If approved, such a statement could allow individual bishops to prevent Catholic politicians who disagree with church doctrine about abortion from receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist, a sacred rite in Catholicism.

It’s a change that has been pushed by conservative bishops with renewed fervor in recent months, following Biden’s victory over former President Donald Trump, and appears to specifically target Biden, who is vocal about his Catholic faith, and whose personal views on abortion have been subject to question throughout his time as vice president and while campaigning in 2020 for the Oval Office.

Thursday’s vote also reflects an internal divide among US church leadership over how involved the religious institution should be in political life. If the conference does produce a statement opposing sacraments for politicians who support abortion rights, it would be a sharp departure from past non-responses to politicians who have gone against church teachings on other issues, such as the death penalty. And it would diverge from the teachings of Pope Francis, who has called for the church to be a “home for all,” rather than overly focusing on a handful of social issues.

Biden is an observant Catholic who regularly attends Mass — including in Cornwall, England, during the recent G7 summit — and reportedly considered entering the priesthood at multiple points in his life.

President Joe Biden leaves church after attending mass in St. Ives, Cornwall, during the G7 summit on June 13, 2021.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

But his support of abortion rights stands in stark contrast to the position of the Catholic Church, and especially that of conservative Catholic leaders in the US, who place particular focus on the issue.

According to the Jesuit magazine America, Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann, who leads an anti-abortion committee in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, cited public figures who “love to describe themselves as devout Catholics” while nonetheless supporting abortion rights, as a reason for his vote to draft the statement.

In May, Naumann also told Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein that such a statement is particularly urgent now because of a “different climate” on abortion rights in the US.

Other Catholic leaders, such as Bishop Liam Cary, have been even more explicit about their focus on Biden: “It seems to me this is an unprecedented situation in the country,” Cary said, according to America magazine. “We’ve never had a situation like this where the executive is a Catholic president who is opposed to the teaching of the church.”

The results of the vote were released on Friday, and the measure was approved by a wide margin, with 168 US bishops voting in favor and just 55 opposing. Six members of the conference abstained from the vote.

However, many steps remain before the church takes any action that could affect Biden’s ability to receive the sacrament, and the result may ultimately be more symbolic than anything. For one, the statement has yet to be drafted, much less approved (that requires a two-thirds majority from the same conference), and the Vatican will likely also have to approve the statement first. (Pope Francis has remained silent about this week’s vote.)

Consequently, there’s no guarantee the statement will go as far as some conservative bishops hope in emphasizing that pro-abortion-rights politicians should be banned from receiving communion, even if one is approved. And as America magazine writer Michael O’Loughlin pointed out on Twitter Friday, the conference doesn’t have the ability to ban Biden from receiving communion outright in any case.

According to O’Loughlin:

Some Catholic conservatives, including some bishops, want to include a section in the proposed future statement about public figures who disagree on church teaching, especially on abortion, and reiterate that their position bars them from Communion. ... But ultimately, the decision on who can receive Communion rests with an individual bishop, not a bishops conference. There will not and cannot be a vote by the bishops conference on whether an individual believer is able to receive Communion.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop for Washington, DC, has said categorically that he will not block Biden from receiving communion.

It’s not unprecedented for an individual bishop to weigh in on whether a political figure should receive communion. In 2008, according to the AP, New York Cardinal Edward Egan condemned former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s decision to receive communion during a papal visit to the city because of Giuliani’s support for abortion rights. However, this week’s vote could lead to a much broader rebuke of Catholics who go against church doctrine on abortion.

Catholic Democrats are already pushing back on the vote — and public opinion is against it as well

Although it is not yet certain what the final statement could end up looking like, nearly 60 Catholic Democrats have pushed back on the conference’s decision. In a “statement of principles,” the lawmakers wrote that “the Sacrament of Holy Communion is central to the life of practicing Catholics, and the weaponization of the Eucharist to Democratic lawmakers for their support of a woman’s safe and legal access to abortion is contradictory.”

“We solemnly urge you to not move forward and deny this most holy of all sacraments, the source and the summit of the whole work of the gospel over one issue,” reads the statement, signed by prominent progressive Catholic lawmakers, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and released Friday.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), who joined the formal statement, also condemned the conference’s decision in harsher language on Twitter. On Friday, he called the bishops conference “hypocrites,” and in a series of posts has pointed out that other Catholics have not been denied sacraments for going against church teachings on other matters, such as divorce, contraception use, and supporting the death penalty.

All told, there are more than 150 Catholic members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who did not join Friday’s statement. Catholics hold 29 percent of seats in Congress, making it the most represented religious denomination in the body. Of those members, according to the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, 91 are Democrats and 67 are Republicans.

And while the motion to draft a statement was approved easily by the conference of bishops this week, polling suggests that Friday’s statement by Catholic lawmakers is more in line with the views of American Catholics more broadly.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, a sizable majority of US Catholics — about 67 percent — believe that Biden should still be allowed to receive communion regardless of his views on abortion, while just 29 percent say he should be denied.

The question breaks along sharply partisan lines, with 87 percent of Catholic Democrats supporting Biden’s ability to receive communion and a smaller majority of Catholic Republicans opposing.

Additionally, an outright majority of all US Catholics support the right to an abortion, according to a 2019 Pew survey. About 56 percent say it should be legal in all or most cases, while 42 percent say it should be illegal in all or most cases.

For his part, Biden seems unworried by the conference’s move.

“That’s a private matter, and I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Biden said on Friday when asked by a reporter about potentially being denied communion.

Opponents of the statement are worried about politicizing the church

Though this week’s vote by the bishops’ conference is only an agreement to move forward with a draft — a long way from anything final or substantive — it’s still noteworthy for what it says about the church’s willingness to involve itself in partisan politics.

Were conservative bishops to succeed in blocking pro-abortion-rights politicians from receiving the Eucharist, the impact would break down along largely partisan lines and could put pressure on devout Catholics who also support abortion rights.

In debating the resolution to draft a statement this week, bishops also expressed concern that backers of the proposal had their eyes on the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election and warned against “get[ting] embroiled in the political situation.”

And Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego warned that taking steps to prevent politicians from receiving the Eucharist could damage the sanctity of the rite.

“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,” McElroy said, according to the New York Times. “That sacrament which seeks to make us one will become for millions of Catholics a sign of division.”

Many US bishops aren’t on the same page as the Vatican

Thursday’s vote by the bishops’ conference is also notable for at least one other reason: It marks a split from the Vatican, which has previously warned American bishops against taking such a step — and it reflects a peculiarly American focus on abortion rights above other matters of church doctrine. It also diverges from statements from Pope Francis, the organization’s head, who has advised against overemphasizing social issues at the expense of other matters of morality and justice.

“It is not necessary to talk about these [social] issues all the time,” Francis said in a 2013 interview with America magazine, referring to same-sex marriage, abortion, and contraception.

In May, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who heads the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — an international body, seated in Rome — specifically cautioned Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, the current president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, against attempting to implement national policy without widespread support.

Without universal agreement by US bishops, Ladaria said, the proposed statement on the Eucharist could “become a source of discord rather than unity” within the church.

According to Catholic News Service, which obtained the letter, Ladaria also argued to Gomez that “it would be ‘misleading’ to present abortion and euthanasia as ‘the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability on the part of Catholics.”

Indeed, Gomez did just that in a statement marking Biden’s January inauguration. “For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘preeminent priority,’” he wrote at the time, though he also stressed that “preeminent does not mean ‘only.’”

As other writers have noted, that emphasis by American Catholicism isn’t new. “Especially since the 1990s, the American Catholic Church has become increasingly identified with the religious right, emphasizing the perils of abortion and gay rights,” writes UCLA professor Jeffrey Guhin for Slate.

However, the church also takes stances that could be seen as liberal on other issues, such as social justice and environmentalism. As the New York Times pointed out on Friday, Biden’s Catholicism, which stems more from such liberal Christian doctrine and is “focused less on sexual politics and more on racial inequality, climate change and poverty,” aligns closely with that of Francis in many ways, despite their differing stances on abortion.

In that sense, the strong conservative bent of the American bishops organization diverges from the spirit of the Vatican since Francis ascended in 2013. Previously, according to the Times’s Jason Horowitz, Pope Francis “has explicitly identified the United States as the source of opposition to his pontificate,” and described it as “an honor” to be attacked by conservative American bishops. On Saturday, Francis did not comment on the week’s vote — because, as Horowitz writes in a separate article, “The divergence of the conservative American church from Francis’ agenda is now so apparent as to become unremarkable.”