The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States, flouting a warning from the Vatican, have overwhelmingly voted to draft a statement on the sacrament of the Eucharist, advancing a political push by conservative bishops to deny President Biden communion because of his support of abortion rights.
The decision, made public on Friday afternoon, is aimed at the nation’s second Catholic president, the most religiously observant commander in chief since Jimmy Carter, and exposes bitter divisions in American Catholicism. It capped three days of contentious debate at a virtual June meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The measure was approved by a vote of 73 percent in favor and 24 percent opposed.
The Eucharist, also called holy communion, is one of the most sacred rituals in Christianity, and bishops have grown worried in recent years about declining Mass attendance and misunderstanding of the importance of the sacrament to Catholic life.
But the move to target a president, who has regularly attended Mass throughout his life, is striking coming from leaders of the president’s own faith, particularly after many conservative Catholics turned a blind eye to the sexual improprieties of former President Donald J. Trump because they supported his political agenda. It reveals a uniquely American Catholicism increasingly at odds with Rome.
The text of the proposal itself has not been written, and would ultimately require approval by a two-thirds majority vote. The proposed outline, earlier reported by America Magazine, said it would “include the theological foundation for the Church’s discipline concerning the reception of Holy Communion and a special call for those Catholics who are cultural, political, or parochial leaders to witness the faith.”
But the fact that Mr. Biden’s views on abortion are even a matter of public discussion is already a victory for conservative Catholics.
Mr. Biden, like Pope Francis, embodies a liberal Christianity focused less on sexual politics and more on racial inequality, climate change and poverty. His administration is a reversal of the power that abortion opponents, including bishops who advanced the measure, enjoyed under Mr. Trump.
The fight comes as anti-abortion activists across the United States are emboldened and as reproductive rights activists want Mr. Biden to speak more forcefully in their defense. State legislatures have introduced more than 500 abortion restrictions over the past five months, and the Supreme Court, with its newly expanded conservative majority, agreed to take up a case on a Mississippi law that bans most abortions at 15 weeks, which could challenge the constitutional right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade. Five of the court’s six Catholic justices were appointed by Republicans.
The bishops are expected to vote on the forthcoming statement in November, ahead of the midterm elections, giving conservatives a tool to criticize Democratic politicians throughout the campaign cycle. Abortion has long been one of the most mobilizing political forces for the religious right.
That subtext was made plain as the bishops debated the topic for more than two hours on Thursday: “I can’t help but wonder if the years 2022 and 2024 might be part of the rush,” Bishop Robert M. Coerver of Lubbock, in Texas, said.
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, who leads the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, which put forward the communion effort, replied in a news conference that the upcoming midterm and presidential elections “never entered my mind, or the committee’s.”
Anti-abortion advocates already see political opportunity in the bishops’ plan. The organization Students for Life held rallies in seven cities on Thursday to urge the bishops to vote “yes.” So far, Republicans are “not having much luck demonizing Biden,” so they are testing abortion as a potential issue on which to criticize him, as they did with transgender athletes in youth sports and critical race theory, said Mike Mikus, a political consultant in Pittsburgh who advises Democratic campaigns.
“The point is to mobilize Republicans; it is all a play to the base,” he said.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, an assembly of the country’s 433 active and retired bishops, can issue guideline statements, but it does not have the authority to decide who can or cannot receive the sacrament of communion. That power is reserved for the local bishop, who has autonomy in his diocese, or the Pope.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, has made it abundantly clear that he does not support denying communion to Mr. Biden. Bishop-elect William Koenig of Wilmington, Del., Mr. Biden’s hometown, has remained largely quiet on the issue ahead of his installation next month.
Usually the bishops’ annual June meeting is a dry affair. But this week’s was the most riveting in years, not only because of the topic but also because it was contentious and revealed the stark divide, theologically and politically, among the church’s U.S. leaders.
The vote was technically about drafting a theological statement on the Eucharist, and in part comes from the bishops’ long-term strategic plan to address declining Mass attendance and misunderstanding about the sacrament.
Bishops grew alarmed about communion in 2019, before Mr. Biden was a front-runner in the presidential race, when a Pew poll found that only about a third of U.S. Catholics believed central Catholic teaching that the communion bread and wine literally becomes the body and blood of Christ during Mass.
But debates over two days this week revealed the political contours of the fight, as bishop after bishop unmuted himself to defend his corner of a polarized American Catholicism.
The meeting opened on Wednesday with a 45-minute debate over whether to even approve the agenda because it would include the controversial vote. A retired bishop, Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, in Texas, urged the conference to address the “new abortion initiatives of our president, especially the one about infanticide.” (Mr. Biden does not support infanticide.) Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis attempted what was effectively a filibuster of the communion discussion entirely. His motion failed by 59 percent, a possible indication that the bishops might not have the two-thirds majority they ultimately would need to approve the statement in November.
At several points the streaming platform transformed the bishops’ voices into robots, adding levity and frustration to the tense debate.
Conservative bishops pressed their case in a more than two-hour debate on Thursday afternoon.
“We’ve never had a situation like this where the executive is a Catholic president who is opposed to the teaching of the church,” Bishop Liam Cary of Baker, in Oregon, said.
“This is a Catholic president that is doing the most aggressive thing we have ever seen in terms of this attack on life,” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, criticizing those in public life who say they are devout but “flaunt their Catholicity.”
Bishops from places like Tyler, Texas, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, argued that the people in their churches wanted bishops to create the communion document. Bishop Donald J. Hying of Madison, in Wisconsin, said he speaks almost daily with 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.”
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, the home diocese of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is Catholic and a Democrat, said bishops would not be taken seriously if they did not create the communion document, so pastors would have a resource to take action in their churches. “Our credibility is on the line,” he said. “The eyes of the whole country are on us right now.”
Bishops seen as allies of Pope Francis’ direction for the church pushed back. Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego cautioned that moving forward would make it “impossible to prevent the weaponization of the Eucharist in partisan battles.”
“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,” he said. “That sacrament which seeks to make us one will become for millions of Catholics a sign of division.”
Cardinal Gregory warned that moving forward with the document would not bring unity and that the voice of the bishops had been “seriously weakened.”
When Bishop Joseph J. Tyson of Yakima, in Washington, asked if the debate was focusing on abortion to the exclusion of other issues on which public figures might disagree with the Church’s teachings, Bishop Rhoades blamed the publicity for overly focusing on abortion.
“I think we would also look at, let’s say, someone who is involved in human trafficking, and the scandal that would be created if someone publicly was involved in that, or was a leader in a white supremacist group,” he said.
About 56 percent of U.S. Catholics support legalized abortion, but about two-thirds of Catholics who attend Mass regularly do not, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March.
Catholics in general are divided on party lines over whether Mr. Biden should receive communion: 55 percent of Catholic Republicans think he should be denied communion, and 87 percent of Catholic Democrats think he should not, according to Pew.
The tension in the church’s U.S. hierarchy over Mr. Biden’s abortion policies has been growing for months. Shortly after Mr. Biden’s election in November, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the unusual creation of a working group to address conflicts that could arise between his administration’s policies and church teaching.
On Inauguration Day, Archbishop Gomez issued a statement criticizing Mr. Biden for policies “that would advance moral evils” especially “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”
Mr. Biden and Pope Francis have been political allies for years, especially because of the partnership between the Vatican and the United States during President Obama’s tenure on issues like the normalization of relations with Cuba and the Paris Climate Agreement.
Last month Pope Francis’ top doctrinal official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, warned the U.S. bishops in a letter that a policy on communion as relates to politicians could “become a source of discord rather than unity.”
The debate will grow in the months ahead, as the doctrine committee moves forward. The document will be one for all Catholics, not individuals, Bishop Rhoades told the bishops this week.
“We need to accept the church’s discipline that those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion,” he said.
But, he added, “We haven’t even written it yet.”