After a contentious debate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has voted to move forward with a process that could call into question the eligibility of politicians like President Joe Biden to receive Communion.
The bishops voted 168-55 in favor of drafting "a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church," officials announced on Friday afternoon, the final day of their three-day virtual meeting. Six bishops abstained.
Biden's election as only the nation's second Roman Catholic president has prompted renewed debate over denying Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, a position at odds with church teachings.
During their online meeting, bishops held a spirited discussion Thursday before voting on the proposal to direct the bishops' Committee on Doctrine to draft the statement. Such a document, once completed, could include guidelines for denying Communion to public officials.
A Catholic president has become a lightning rod for debate
Biden was mentioned by name or alluded to several times, including by Bishop Liam Cary of the Diocese of Baker in Oregon, who described what he sees as an "unprecedented situation in the country."
"We've never had a situation like this where the executive is a Catholic president opposed to the teaching of the church " Cary said.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, who leads the bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, has been among the most vocal critics of Biden's support abortion rights. He said he's disturbed by Catholic officials who "flaunt their Catholicity" while publicly taking positions on abortion that conflict with those of the church.
"This is a Catholic president that's doing the most aggressive thing we've ever seen in terms of this attack on life when it's most innocent," Naumann said.
Other bishops urged caution, echoing a warning from the Vatican that moving forward with the document could politicize the sacrament of Holy Communion and risk deepening divisions among American Catholics, at a time when many are just beginning to return to in-person worship.
"Bishops now want to talk about excluding people at a time when the real challenge before them is welcoming people back to the regular practice of the faith, and rebuilding their communities," Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago warned.
Bishop Robert Coerver of Lubbock, Texas, described what he saw as a rush to address the issue, and suggested that the debate was being clouded by concerns about upcoming elections.
"I can't help but wonder if the years 2022 and 2024 might be part of the rush," he said. "And I think we need to be real careful not to get embroiled in the political situation."
Soon after, Bishop Thomas Daly of the Spokane Diocese expressed skepticism about calls by some bishops for more time to discuss the matter and engage in dialogue with officials who support abortion rights.
"There is an aggressiveness in a number of elected officials, and this call for dialogue," he said "Sometimes I wonder if the dialogue is meant not truly to listen but to delay."
The bishops' vote concerns what is largely a procedural step – but one fraught with debate, given larger disagreements over how church leaders treat public officials who take positions at odds with those of the Catholic Church. Those decisions currently are left to local bishops.
About two-thirds of American Catholics believe Biden should be allowed to receive Communion, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center released in March. But many Catholics – like Americans in general – are starkly divided on the issue by party; more than half of Catholics who also identify as Republicans said Biden should not be allowed to receive the sacrament because of his views on abortion.
Discussion of who can receive the sacrament has a long history
The issue of who is eligible to receive the sacrament also has divided U.S. Catholic Bishops; several have called for denying Communion to Biden and other prominent Roman Catholic officials who take positions on abortion at odds with those of the Catholic Church, while others have argued the Eucharist should not be used to advance political goals.
Church leaders have expressed concerns about declining Mass attendance, and how well parishioners understand the full meaning and significance of the sacrament. In 2019, only about one third of American Catholics surveyed by Pew said they believed the church's teaching known as "transubstantiation" – or the idea that during Communion, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Instead, most Catholics said they saw the sacrament as symbolic. According to church teaching, Catholics are expected to be free of any significant, unconfessed sin and in what's known as a "state of grace" when receiving Communion.
Similar discussions have arisen before, most notably when Democrat John Kerry, also a Roman Catholic, was running for President in 2004. The debate resurfaced surrounding Biden's run for President in 2020.
Biden, only the nation's second Catholic president, was endorsed by Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups during his presidential run in 2020. The year before, he pleased abortion rights advocates by ending his longtime support for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for abortions for low-income women, in most cases.
The three-day meeting, which is being held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, ended on Friday afternoon.
Preparation of a new statement on the meaning of the Eucharist is only a first step; the bishops would have an opportunity to amend the proposed document at a future meeting before voting on whether or not to approve it. They're scheduled to meet again in person in November.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A move by Catholic leaders could call into question the eligibility of some politicians who support abortion rights to receive communion, including President Biden. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took a procedural vote that carries unusual significance. It was announced during yesterday's final day of online meetings.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The action passed with a vote of 168 in favor, 55 opposed, six abstentions.
SIMON: NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon has been following the debate this week and joins us. Sarah, thanks so much for being with us.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Sure. Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: What does this vote do?
MCCAMMON: Well, I want to be clear, first of all, about what it doesn't do. The bishops did not vote on whether or not to allow President Biden or any other politician who supports abortion rights to receive communion. That's been suggested in some coverage. But what this was essentially a procedural question. Should this organization of U.S. bishops put together a statement that might contain some guidance for local bishops who are making decisions about this controversial issue? And as we heard, a clear majority has said, yes, let's move forward with that process. That document, by the way, is expected to discuss several issues surrounding the sacrament of communion known as the Eucharist. This issue has come up before, Scott, you might remember, related to other high-profile Catholic politicians like John Kerry. But it has resurfaced surrounding Biden's election.
SIMON: You listened in to the discussions - did I call them a debate? - discussions this week. What did various bishops say?
MCCAMMON: You might call it a debate. You might call it a discussion. But one of the most vocal bishops on this issue is Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas. He says he's concerned about politicians who, as he puts it, flaunt their Catholicity while supporting abortion rights.
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JOSEPH NAUMANN: This is a Catholic president that's doing this - the most aggressive thing we've ever seen in terms of this attack on life when its most innocent.
MCCAMMON: But other bishops also expressed concerns about where this kind of document - where this process could lead the church. Bishop Robert Coerver of Lubbock, Texas, said church leaders should take more time and listen to each other, talk about this in person.
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ROBERT COERVER: There seems to be a rush to this, and I can't help but wonder if the years 2020 and 2024 might be part of the rush. And I think we need to be real careful not to get embroiled in the political situation.
SIMON: Speaking of politics - and I know it's not a political institution as we understand it - but are the bishops in a different place perhaps than the rank and file - the laity of American Catholics?
MCCAMMON: Well, when it comes to some of these issues that can intersect with public life, American Catholics are at odds, at least in practice, with their church on some of them. For example, most Catholic women say they've used contraception, which is against church teachings. Two-thirds of Catholics surveyed by Pew say they do not want politicians like Biden to be denied communion. But those opinions tend to fall heavily along party lines, I should add. And groups like Catholics for Choice have been arguing that the church should focus on other issues, things like poverty or climate change or perhaps the death penalty.
SIMON: What's next in this debate?
MCCAMMON: Well, the bishops have to draft a document, discuss it, amend it, vote on it. And then the Vatican may also have something to say.
SIMON: OK. NPR's national correspondent Sarah McCammon, thank you so much for being with us.
MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.