Catholic bishops just avoided confrontation with Joe Biden over Communion


Hundreds of the nation’s Catholic bishops, their names hanging from green ropes around their necks, sat at long tables inside a conference room in Baltimore on Wednesday to vote on pressing issues facing the American Catholic Church.

First, the bishops tested their electronic consoles by voting on whether they would get ice cream at the break. Ice cream gets the votes. But later in the day, a more important decision was made, when bishops voted on a 30-page teaching about the Eucharist, a central rite of Catholicism of taking bread and wine in the presence of Jesus Christ.

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The vote and the drafting of the document were closely watched for signs that the bishops might include a rebuke to President Joe Biden, the nation’s first Catholic president to support access to abortion, and opened the door for priests to deny sacrament rites to government officials such as the president holding political positions that go against the church’s teachings.

But this did not happen. The Puritans retracted their position, and the American Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a softer wording in an effort to keep the conference united. Instead of calling on Catholic politicians who support access to abortion, the document included instructions for Catholics “who exercise some form of public authority” to look inward. The document states that these congregants “have a special responsibility to form their consciences in accordance with the faith of the Church and moral law, and to serve the human family by preserving human life and dignity.” The document passed by a wide margin.

Read more: Joe Biden’s presidency has shone a spotlight on divisions in the American Catholic Church

The debate over the place of communion in Catholic life, and the responsibility Catholic politicians have to publicly advocate for church-supported policies, comes at a time when the American Catholic Church is experiencing sharp divisions on social issues. The Biden presidency has highlighted those divisions. The bishops’ decision to avoid direct confrontation with Biden followed a long, warm meeting between Biden and Pope Francis. In Rome on October 29. After their rare 90-minute conversation at the Vatican, Biden said Francis called him a “good Catholic” and said he “should continue to receive the Eucharist.” The Pope himself did not make a public statement about their meeting. Pope Francis called for unity among bishops and recommended a “pastoral” approach to worshipers like Biden, saying the question of bread and wine should be taken up in discussions between priests and church members.

But disagreements still existed between the bishops. During the conference in Baltimore on Wednesday, Archbishop Joseph Newman of Kansas City, Kansas, urged his fellow bishops to spend more time looking after Catholic politicians seen as acting inconsistently with Catholic teachings. “Remember the fetus,” said Naumann, a blue mask that reads “Remember the fetus,” hanging from one ear. “I think it’s important that each of us take this seriously and have these conversations with people in public life.”

A committee of bishops spent months writing and reviewing a document entitled “The Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” The idea to explain how believers should think about Communion in more detail came from the closed “working group” that senior bishops convened in the months after Biden’s election. Some bishops were concerned that Biden’s prominence as a Catholic, who had also campaigned to expand access to abortions, would cause confusion in congregations around the church’s teachings. The growing debate has revealed Disagreements in the American Catholic Church On church teachings about same-sex marriage, the role of women in church leadership, and whether objections to abortion extend beyond one’s personal conscience to broader political decisions.

The infighting among Catholics has wider political ramifications. One in five voters in the 2020 presidential election was Catholic; Nearly half of them voted for Biden. The Catholic Church has lobbied for Biden’s next major legislative package, the Build Back Better Plan, to include a federal funding ban on abortions. Getting rid of the Hyde Amendment — a measure that prohibits federal funding for abortion unless the woman’s life is in danger or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest — has been a priority for progressive Democrats, and they have succeeded in pushing Biden to the left on the issue. The amendment has been re-approved every year since 1976, and Biden has supported it, but reversed and denounced it in 2019 when running for president.

Biden dropped Hyde’s amendment from his proposed budget earlier this year. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Build Back Better package later this week, after which it is expected to be taken up by the Senate. It could be left to Biden to decide whether federal funding for abortions stays in the bill or cuts — perhaps once again putting his political positions at odds with the Catholic Church.

With Abigail Abrams / New York reporting



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