When the United States Catholic Bishops meet in June, they will decide whether to send a tougher-than-ever message to President Joe Biden and other Catholic politicians: Don’t receive Communion if you continue to publicly advocate for abortion rights.
The document at issue is one that will be prepared for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by its Committee on Doctrine in order to clarify the church’s position on an issue that has repeatedly vexed the bishops in recent decades. Many bishops believe it has taken on new urgency because Biden, only the second Catholic president, is the first to hold that office while openly supporting abortion rights.
According to Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, who chairs the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities and believes it is necessary to publicly chastise Biden on the issue, such a stance by a public figure is “a grave moral evil.”
If approved, the document would make clear the USCCB’s position that Biden and other Catholic public figures with similar views should not receive Communion, according to Naumann.
It would still leave decisions on Communion withholding to individual bishops, in accordance with existing USCCB policy. In Biden’s case, the top prelates of the jurisdictions where he frequently worships — Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Delaware, and Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C. — have stated unequivocally that Biden is welcome to receive Communion at churches under their jurisdiction.
The committee has not released any information about its work. According to Naumann, the issue will be discussed at the USCCB meeting in June, and the bishops will vote on whether the committee should continue working on the document so that it can be released publicly later.
Work would require a two-thirds majority, according to Naumann. Even critics of the initiative, such as Lexington, Kentucky Bishop John Stowe, predict that it will be widely supported.
Stowe is one of a small group of U.S. bishops who are concerned that the USCCB’s emphasis on abortion is undermining Pope Francis’ exhortations for the church to emphasize issues such as climate change, immigration, and inequality. Stowe is also concerned that the United States bishops are passing up an opportunity to work with Biden on such issues.
American Cardinal Raymond Burke has broached the possibility of Catholicism’s ultimate sanction. He says politicians who “publicly and obstinately” support abortion are “apostates” who not only should be barred from receiving Communion but deserve excommunication.
Bishops already troubled by Biden’s stance on abortion grew more dismayed by three measures from his administration in mid-April.
It removed restrictions on federal funding for human fetal tissue research. It overturned a Trump administration policy that prohibited organizations like Planned Parenthood from receiving federal family planning grants if they also referred women for abortions. And it said women seeking an abortion pill will not be required to visit a doctor’s office or clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling women to get a prescription via telemedicine and receive the pill by mail.
The Vatican has not ruled on the specific issue of Communion and politicians who support abortion in a major teaching document, despite the fact that the church’s internal canon law states that people who are in a state of persistent sin should not be allowed to receive Communion. It has also issued guidelines for the behavior of Catholics in political life exhorting them to uphold principles consistent with church doctrine.
The then-head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, told U.S. bishops in 2004 that priests “must” deny the sacrament if a politician goes to receive Communion despite an “obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin,” including the sin of consistently campaigning for permissive abortion laws.
“The bishops’ conference does have broad responsibility to speak out on matters that impact the effectiveness and clarity of Church’s mission,” Peters said via email. “The bad example being given by some high-profile Catholics who consistently fail to protect innocent human life is surely one of those matters.”
Some Catholic academics are uneasy about the document.