A committee of U.S. Catholic bishops is getting to work on a policy document that has stirred controversy among their colleagues before a word of it has even been written.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly approved the drafting of a document “on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church” that some bishops hope will be a rebuke for politicians who support abortion rights but continue to receive Communion.
The 168-55 vote to proceed, vehemently opposed by a minority of bishops amid impassioned debate during virtual meetings, came despite appeals from the Vatican for a more cautious and collegial approach.
Here’s a look at what has happened and what lies ahead:
Is this aimed at President Joe Biden?
The chairman of the USCCB’s doctrine committee, Bishop Kevin Rhoades, says no decisions have been made on the final contents of the proposed document but that it will not mention Biden or other individuals by name. And it will offer guidelines, not establish a mandatory national policy.
However, multiple bishops on both sides acknowledge the political significance of the document and say it is unavoidably about the president. Supporters say a strong rebuke of Biden is needed because of his recent actions protecting and expanding abortion access, while opponents warn that in doing so they risk being perceived as a partisan force.
“It’s quite clear that for a lot of the bishops, a lot of the impact is political,” said William Cavanaugh, professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University in Chicago. “You have some of them saying this is not about Joe Biden, but in the comments the bishops made in that Zoom session, a lot of them mentioned Biden and gave the game away.”
Biden is the nation’s second Catholic president and the first to assume office since abortion became a major political issue. He supports the legality of abortion, while Catholic bishops have long made its abolition a foremost policy goal.
The issue is particularly salient with Biden because he has long been very public in his devotion, fluently speaking the language of faith and regularly attending Mass even on busy days like his own inauguration and the recent G-7 summit in Britain.
What do Biden and other Catholic Democrats say?
“That’s a private matter, and I don’t think that’s going to happen,” the president said when asked at the White House on Friday.
Sixty Catholic Democrats in Congress signed a letter to the bishops saying: “We solemnly urge you to not move forward and deny this most holy of all sacraments, the source and the summit of the whole work of the gospel over one issue.”
They said they’re inspired by Catholic social teaching to serve the neediest and to promote alternatives to abortion. They added that the “weaponizing” of Communion for those who support abortion rights is inconsistent, since bishops haven’t targeted Catholic politicians who back other policies that contradict church teachings, such as the death penalty or hard-line immigration and asylum stances.
What is the bishops’ position on that?
In a document titled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, last updated in 2019, the U.S. bishops lay out their official teachings on the political responsibilities of Catholics. It cites a wide range of policy concerns — but also prioritizes abortion.
“The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed,” it reads. “At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”
The bishops also deplore the “inhumane treatment” and family separations of immigrants, as well as “gun violence, xenophobia, capital punishment and other issues that affect human life and dignity.”
But it’s much less common for bishops to discuss denying Communion on issues other than abortion.
Can the bishops’ conference bar Biden from communion?
No. Only the local bishop where he’s going to church can do that. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, has made clear that Biden is welcome to receive Communion at churches in the archdiocese.
What happens next?
The USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine will spend the next months preparing a draft document.
At the bishops’ next national meeting in November, expected to be conducted in person in Baltimore, bishops will have a chance to offer amendments. For it to be adopted, the final draft would require approval by two-thirds of bishops, and then by the Vatican itself.
During the debate at this week’s meeting, several bishops suggested meeting regionally in the next few months to thrash out their differences face-to-face.
Rhoades indicted that his committee could start work soon on noncontroversial sections and await input from the regional meetings on the more contentious parts.