In a break with Vatican politics and the past, the American arm of the Roman Catholic Church launched a process this week that could ultimately sanction the exclusion of President Joe Biden, the nation's second Catholic President, from receiving Holy Communion.
On Thursday, the United States Catholic Bishops Conference, made up of all Catholic bishops in the United States and the US Virgin Islands, voted overwhelmingly to draft "a formal statement on the importance of the Eucharist in the life of the Church" that would clarify Church politics on the subject – at least in the USA. If such a declaration is approved, it could enable individual bishops to prevent Catholic politicians who disagree with ecclesiastical doctrine on abortion from receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist, a sacred rite in Catholicism.
It is a change that has been renewed with renewed zeal by conservative bishops in the last few months after Biden's victory over former President Donald Trump, specifically referring to Biden, who is vocal about his Catholic faith and his personal views on abortion on the subject were questioned during his tenure as Vice President and during his 2020 campaign for the Oval Office.
Thursday's vote also reflected an internal split among US church leaders over how much the religious institution should be involved in political life. If the conference produces a position against sacraments for electoral politicians, it would be a sharp departure from previous non-responses to politicians who have violated Church teachings on other issues such as the death penalty. And it would deviate from the teachings of Pope Francis, the chief. the Catholic Church, which has called for the Church to be a "home for all" instead of focusing too much on a handful of social issues.
Biden, 78, is an observant Catholic who regularly attends Mass – including in Cornwall, England, during the recent G7 summit – and has reportedly considered entering the priesthood at several points in his life.
President Joe Biden leaves the Church after attending mass during the G7 Summit on June 13, 2021 in St. Ives, Cornwall.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP via Getty Images
But his electoral stance on abortion is in stark contrast to that of the Catholic Church, and particularly conservative Catholic leaders in the United States, who pay special attention to the issue.
The reason given by the Archbishop of Kansas City, Joseph Naumann, who heads an anti-abortion committee in the US Bishops' Conference, according to the Jesuit magazine America, public figures who "like to call themselves devout Catholics" but still have the right to Support Abortion for voting for the drafting of the statement.
In May, Naumann also told Washington Post's religion reporter Michelle Boorstein that such a declaration is now particularly urgent because of a “different climate” on abortion law in the United States.
I spoke to Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chairman of the US Bishops' Pro-Life Committee and one of the men pushing for the vote. He noted that the bishops held a similar vote in 2004, but said the new effort is urgent as he calls a "different climate" for abortion. 2/7
– Michelle Boorstein (@mboorstein) May 26, 2021
Other Catholic leaders like Bishop Liam Cary have made their focus on Biden even more explicit: "It seems to me this is an unprecedented situation in the country," Cary said, according to America Magazine. "We have never had a situation like this where the executive is a Catholic President who is against the teaching of the Church."
The results of the vote were released on Friday and the measure was passed by a large majority, with 168 US bishops voting in favor and only 55 against. Six members of the conference abstained.
However, there are still many steps left before the Church takes action that could affect Biden's ability to receive the sacrament, and the outcome may ultimately be more symbolic than anything else. For one thing, the statement has yet to be drafted, let alone approved (this will require a two-thirds majority from the same conference), and the Vatican will likely need to approve the statement first. (Francis was silent about this week's vote.)
As a result, there is no guarantee that the statement will go as far as some Conservative bishops hope, insisting that electoral politicians should be excluded from receiving communion, even if one is approved – and as America Magazine writer, Michael J. O & # 39; Loughlin, stressed Friday on Twitter, the conference does not have the opportunity to ban Biden from receiving communion in any case.
But ultimately, the decision of who can receive communion rests with an individual bishop, not an episcopal conference. The conference of bishops will not and cannot vote on whether an individual believer is able to receive communion. 6 /
– Michael J. O & # 39; Loughlin (@MikeOLoughlin) June 16, 2021
According to O’Loughlin:
Some Catholic Conservatives, including some bishops, wish to include in the proposed future statement a section on public figures who disagree with Church teaching, particularly abortion, and reiterate that their position excludes them from communion. … But in the end the decision about who can receive communion rests with an individual bishop, not with an episcopal conference. The conference of bishops will not and cannot vote on whether an individual believer is able to receive communion.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Archbishop of Washington, DC, has categorically stated that he will not prevent Biden from receiving communion.
It is not unprecedented for a single bishop to weigh up whether a political figure should receive communion. In 2008, according to the AP, New York Cardinal Edward Egan condemned former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's decision to receive communion during a papal visit to the city because Giuliani supported abortion law. However, this week's vote could result in a much wider rebuke of Catholics who violate church doctrine on abortion.
Catholic Democrats are already pushing back the vote – and public opinion is against it too
Although it is not yet certain what the final declaration might look like, nearly 60 Catholic Democrats have pushed back the conference's decision. In a "statement of principles" lawmakers wrote that "the sacrament of Holy Communion is central to the life of practicing Catholics, and democratic lawmakers' use of the Eucharist to support a woman's safe and legal access to abortion is inconsistent." . "
"We urge you not to move forward and to deny this most sacred of all sacraments, the source and culmination of all the work of the Gospel in a single point," the statement reads by prominent progressive Catholic legislators, including Alexandria Ocasio , was signed. Cortez (D-NY) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and released on Friday.
MEP Ted Lieu (D-CA), who endorsed the formal statement, condemned the conference's decision in sharper language on Twitter. On Friday he called the conference of bishops "hypocrites" and pointed out in a number of contributions that other Catholics were not denied the sacraments because they violated church teachings in other matters, such as supporting divorce, the use of contraceptives, and assisting in death Penalty kick.
Dear @USCCB: I am Catholic and you are a hypocrite. You didn't tell Bill Barr, a Catholic, not to go to communion as he expanded the death penalty for killing people. You are openly partisan and should be ashamed of yourself. Another reason you are losing membership. https://t.co/kpIYRolnHD
– Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) June 18, 2021
There are more than 150 Catholic members of Congress in total, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who disagreed with Friday's statement. Catholics hold 29 percent of the seats in Congress – making it the most represented religious group in the body. Of those members, 91 are Democrats and 67 are Republicans, according to Dave Weigel of the Washington Post.
Of course, Biden should be the focus of these stories, but the Speaker of the House of Representatives and most Catholic members of Congress would be denied Communion if this progressed. (91 Catholic Demes in Congress, 67 Republicans.) Https://t.co/ARKn3dA2Py
– Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) June 18, 2021
And while the motion to draft a statement was smoothly approved by the Bishops' Conference this week, polls suggest that the statement made by the Catholic legislature on Friday is more in line with the views of American Catholics, which are capitalized.
According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, a sizable majority of US Catholics – about 67 percent – believe that Biden can still receive communion regardless of his views on abortion, while only 29 percent say he will be withheld should.
The question breaks into sharply partisan lines, with 87 percent of Catholic Democrats supporting Biden's ability to receive Communion and a smaller majority of Catholic Republicans opposing it.
I see a lot of Conservatives excited about this, but I think it will not work as they believe telling attentive Catholic Liberals and Democrats that they are not wanted or welcome in the Church. https://t.co/lcZtivvraq
– Adam Serwer (@AdamSerwer) June 18, 2021
Additionally, according to a 2019 Pew poll, an absolute majority of all U.S. Catholics support the right to abortion. About 56 percent say it should be legal in all or most of the cases, while 42 percent say it should be illegal in all or most of the cases.
For his part, Biden doesn't seem to be concerned about the conference's move.
"This is a private matter and I don't think that's going to happen," Biden said on Friday when a reporter asked him if he might be denied communion.
Opponents of the statement fear a politicization of the church
While this week's US Bishops' Conference vote is just an agreement to move forward with a draft – far from anything final or substantial – it is still remarkable what it says about the Church's willingness to get involved in party politics.
Should conservative bishops succeed in preventing electoral politicians from receiving the Eucharist, the effect would be largely partisan and could put pressure on devout Catholics who are also in favor of the election.
During this week's debate on the resolution on the draft declaration, the bishops also expressed concern that supporters of the proposal were watching the 2022 midterm and 2024 presidential elections and warned not to get “embroiled in the political situation”.
"I can't help but wonder if 2022 and 2024 are possibly part of the onslaught and I think we have to be careful not to get caught up in the political situation." ~ Bishop Coerver of Lubbock, TX concerned that the bishops are having rash discussions about refusing Communion. # USCCB21
– Sarah McCammon (@sarahmccammon) June 17, 2021
And Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego warned that actions to prevent politicians from receiving the Eucharist could damage the sanctity of the rite.
“Once we have legitimized public order-based eucharistic exclusion as a regular part of our magisterium – and this is the path we are going – we will invite all the political hostilities that so tragically divide our nation into the heart of the world Eucharistic celebration "Said McElroy, according to the New York Times. "The sacrament that wants to make us one becomes a sign of division for millions of Catholics."
Many US bishops are not on the same side as the Vatican
Thursday's Bishops' Conference vote is also noteworthy for at least one other reason: it marks a split from the Vatican, which previously warned American bishops against such a move – and reflects a peculiarly American focus on the right to abortion over other matters of Church doctrine . It also deviates from statements made by Pope Francis, the head of the organization, who has advised against overemphasizing social issues at the expense of other matters of morality and justice.
"There is no need to keep talking about these (social) issues," Francis said in a 2013 interview with America, referring to same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception.
In May, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Catholic Church – an international body based in Rome – specifically warned the Archbishop of Los Angeles, José Gomez, the current President of the U.S. Bishops' Conference, against attempting to do so, implement national policies without widespread support.
Without the universal approval of the US bishops, Ladaria said, the proposed declaration on the Eucharist could "become a source of discord rather than unity" within the Church.
According to the Catholic Intelligence Service that received the letter, Ladaria also argued to Gomez that it would be "misleading" to consider abortion and euthanasia as "the only serious matters of Catholic moral and social doctrine that require the highest level of accountability on the part of Catholics. "
In fact, Gomez did just that in a statement on Biden's inauguration in January. "For the nation's bishops, the persistent injustice of abortion remains the 'paramount priority," "he wrote at the time, but he also emphasized that" primary does not mean' just '. "
As other writers have noted, this emphasis is not new to American Catholicism. "Since the 1990s in particular, the American Catholic Church has increasingly identified with the religious right and has emphasized the dangers of abortion and the rights of homosexuals," writes UCLA professor Jeffrey Guhin in an article for Slate.
But the church also takes positions on other issues such as social justice and environmental protection that could be described as liberal. As the New York Times noted on Friday, Biden's Catholicism, stemming more from such liberal Christian doctrines and “focused less on sexual politics than more on racial inequality, climate change and poverty”, is in many ways closely aligned with Francis, despite them different attitudes towards abortion.
In this sense, the strong conservative orientation of the American bishops' organization has departed from the spirit of the Vatican since Francis in 2013. Previously, Pope Francis had "specifically identified the United States as a source of opposition," according to The Times' Jason Horowitz. to his pontificate ”and called it“ an honor ”to be attacked by conservative American bishops. On Saturday, Francis did not comment on the vote of the week – because, as Horowitz writes in a separate article: "The deviation of the conservative American Church from the agenda of Francis is now so obvious that it is inconspicuous."