An advisory group to U.S. bishops urged the Catholic leaders on Tuesday to avoid making Communion “a tool for division” as debate resurfaces in Catholic circles over whether President Joe Biden’s support for abortion rights should disqualify him from receiving the sacrament.
Gathered in a Baltimore hotel ballroom, the bishops’ conference is scheduled to discuss a draft of a document clarifying the meaning of Holy Communion, a sacrament central to the faith.
The bishops have been divided over how explicitly the document should define the eligibility of prominent Catholics like Biden to receive Communion due to political stances that contradict church teaching.
Biden, the first Catholic U.S. president since John F. Kennedy, has said he personally opposes abortion but supports a woman’s right to choose. He has vowed to protect abortion rights in the face of increasingly restrictive laws enacted by states. Last month, his administration called on the Supreme Court to block a Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Advisory Council, a body made up of laypeople and clergy, holds the position that Communion should not be politicized, council chair Mark Sadd told the bishops on Tuesday.
“We are united in our conviction that the Eucharist cannot be a tool for division, the Eucharist cannot be ideological, the Eucharist cannot be partisan,” Sadd said.
The conference has not made the draft document public. A version of the draft published by the Catholic newsletter The Pillar does not mention Biden or any politician by name, but states that “people who exercise some form of public authority have a special responsibility to embody the church.” It says Catholics who live in a state of “mortal sin” without repentance should not receive Communion, but does not say who should sit in judgment.
The bishops were set to review the document on Tuesday and vote on it Wednesday after debate and possible amendments. The document needs a “yes” vote from two-thirds of the conference to pass.
Some conservative bishops have argued the conference must rebuke politicians such as Biden who support abortion rights contrary to church teaching. That contingent has called for the document to set explicit standards of eligibility for receiving the sacrament.
Others have cautioned against weaponizing Communion and withholding it as a means of punishing specific political stances.
Some 55 percent of U.S. Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 59 percent of the general population, according to a Pew Research survey conducted in April.
Sadd told bishops that some members of the advisory council expressed doubt that the document as written would serve to heal existing rifts in the church.
Nearly 20 percent of U.S. Catholics have left the church in the past two decades, according to a Gallup poll in March, as sexual abuse scandals involving predatory priests have emerged and members disagreed on social issues.
One council member thought the document was too vague in defining who should receive Communion, and that “pastors and priests need more clarity in what to do when there is open scandal,” Sadd said.