In an emotional debate on Thursday, U.S. Catholic bishops clashed over how to address concerns about Catholic politicians, including President Joe Biden, who continue to receive Communion while supporting abortion rights.
Some bishops believe a strong rebuke of Biden is necessary in light of his recent actions to protect and expand abortion access. Others warned that such a move would portray the bishops as a partisan force at a time when the country is riven by bitter political divisions.
The issue is by far the most contentious item on the agenda of the virtual national meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It will end on Friday, shortly after the announcement of how the bishops voted in secret on the Communion dispute.
If a majority of bishops agree, the USCCB’s doctrine committee will draft a statement on the meaning of Communion in the life of the church, which will be put to a vote at a future meeting, most likely in November. One section of the document is expected to contain a specific admonition to Catholic politicians and other public figures who disobey church teaching on abortion and other fundamental doctrinal issues.
Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, Wisconsin, said he speaks with many people who are perplexed by a Catholic president who promotes “the most radical pro-abortion agenda in history,” and that the bishops’ conference must take action.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego countered that a document targeting Catholic politicians would have “destructive consequences” for the USCCB. “It would be impossible to prevent the Eucharist from being weaponized,” McElroy said. “We will invite all of our nation’s political animosities into the heart of the Eucharistic sacrament.”
Biden, who regularly attends Mass, says he personally opposes abortion but does not believe he should impose his views on Americans who disagree. During his presidency, he has taken several executive actions that have been lauded by abortion rights activists.
The chairman of the USCCB doctrine committee, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, stated that no decisions on the final contents of the proposed document have been made. He stated that bishops who are not on the committee would have opportunities to provide input, and that the final draft would be subject to amendments before being put to a vote.
Rhoades also stated that the document would not name Biden or other individuals and would instead provide guidelines rather than imposing a mandatory national policy.
Individual bishops and archbishops would be left to make decisions about Communion for specific churchgoers. The archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, has stated that Biden is welcome to receive Communion at any of the archdiocese’s churches.
Gregory was one of dozens of bishops who spoke out during Thursday’s debate, urging colleagues to defeat the bill and give more time for candid, in-person dialogue before moving forward.
“We have a choice right now: either pursue a path of strengthening unity among ourselves or settle for creating a document that will not bring unity but may very well damage it,” Gregory said.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, disagreed that the bishops were acting too quickly, claiming that Biden had forced their hand. “It’s not the bishops who have brought us here; it’s some of our public officials,” he said. “This is a Catholic president doing the most aggressive things we’ve ever seen on the most innocent side of life.
One of the most outspoken supporters of a USCCB rebuke to Biden, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, said the bishops’ credibility is already being questioned by many Catholics and would deteriorate further if they did not move forward with the document.