While some U.S. Catholic bishops continue to denounce President Joe Biden for his support of legal abortion, their conference as a whole is likely to avoid direct criticism of him at its upcoming national meeting.
The highest-profile agenda item is a proposed “teaching document” about the sacrament of Communion. Months of work on the document, by the conference’s Committee on Doctrine, coincided with sometimes heated debate among the bishops as to whether Biden and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights are unworthy of receiving Communion.
A draft of the document circulating ahead of the Nov. 15-18 meeting in Baltimore breaks little new ground, though its language could be toughened during the gathering. The draft mentions abortion only once and doesn’t name Biden or other politicians, though it says at one point, “Lay people who exercise some form of public authority have a special responsibility to embody Church teaching.”
A member of the doctrine committee, Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, said he and his colleagues decided that the document should avoid any trace of partisan politics.
Yet Olson remains an outspoken critic of Biden’s abortion stance, saying the president has “upped the scale of scandal.”
“He’s gone on record as saying abortion is a fundamental right while presenting himself as an exemplary Catholic,” Olson told The Associated Press. “The issue of public confusion is really at stake here.”
While some bishops have made clear that they would deny Communion to Biden, there is no national policy on the matter. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, has affirmed that Biden is welcome to receive Communion there.
Last month, after a private meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Biden said the subject of abortion was not raised, but indicated he had the pontiff’s general support.
“We just talked about the fact he was happy that I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving Communion,” Biden said.
One conservative bishop, Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, had urged Francis to confront Biden over abortion.
“Please challenge President Biden on this critical issue,” Tobin tweeted before the Vatican meeting. “His persistent support of abortion is an embarrassment for the Church and a scandal to the world.”
Throughout the year, Francis and some of his high-level aides have sought to tone down the anti-Biden sentiment with USCCB ranks, calling for dialogue and an approach to Communion that is pastoral rather than punitive.
The friction between U.S. bishops and Catholic politicians who support abortion rights is a decades-old phenomenon; it reached a notably intense phase in 2004 when John Kerry, a Catholic, won the Democratic presidential nomination.
But Biden’s election — as only the second Catholic president after John F. Kennedy, and the first with an explicit record in favor of legal abortion — created an unprecedented dilemma for the bishops.
Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, formed a working group last year to assess the “complex and difficult situation” posed by the newly elected president’s stances on abortion and other issues that differ from official church teaching. Before disbanding, the group proposed the drafting of a new document addressing the issue of Communion — a project assigned to the doctrine committee.
Among the outspoken Biden critics is Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco — the hometown of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also a Catholic. Cordileone has made clear his view that Pelosi and Biden should refrain from receiving Communion.
Cordileone told AP he’s not expecting the proposed document to single out Biden, but he wants it to send a firm message regarding Catholics in public life and their stance on abortion.
He cited several “grave evils” that pose threats to society — such as human trafficking, racism, terrorism, climate change and a flawed immigration system.
“The difference with abortion,” he added, “is that it is the only one of these grave evils that many people in public life are explicitly promoting.”
The incoming chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, hopes the proposed document will ease the divide between bishops who favored an explicit rebuke of Biden and those who opposed it.
“Sometimes you say, well, to be in the middle is kind of the position of weakness,” he told Catholic News Service. “These days the position of strength and courage is often in the middle.”
Lori stressed the importance of unity within the bishops’ ranks at a time of political polarization in the U.S.
“We have to be careful of not allowing ourselves to go down no-exit, partisan alleys where there is no life at the end of it,” he told CNS.
In a panel discussion Thursday sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, who does not favor rebuking the president, criticized the proposed teaching document as simultaneously bland and divisive. He said he would vote against it but predicted it will win the two-thirds majority to be adopted.
For some prominent politicians, denial of Communion is not an abstract issue.
Dick Durbin, a practicing Catholic and the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate, says he has been barred from receiving Communion in his home diocese of Springfield, Illinois, for 17 years under the directives of two successive bishops. Even though he has found a welcoming church in the archdiocese of Chicago, he remains discomfited by the situation.
“It’s not a happy experience,” Durbin said in a recent interview with the Jesuit publication America. “I am careful when I go to a church that I have never been to before.”
The bishops’ meeting will include an address from Gomez, who is facing criticism from Catholic racial-justice activists for saying recently that some contemporary social movements and theories — such as social justice, “wokeness” and intersectionality — represent “dangerous substitutes for true religion.”
“Today’s critical theories and ideologies are profoundly atheistic,” Gomez said. “They deny the soul, the spiritual, transcendent dimension of human nature.”
The Washington-based clergy network Faith in Public Life circulated a petition — signed by several prominent activists — denouncing the remarks by Gomez.
“Racial justice movements have awakened our nation’s conscience to the epidemic of police killings and systemic racism,” said John Gehring, the network’s Catholic program director, in a statement announcing the petition. “Catholic bishops and other religious leaders should be in the streets with these movement organizers, not demeaning them.”