American bishops seek to deny Biden Communion: 'We've never had a situation like this'

The Roman Catholic bishops of the U.S. voted on Friday to begin drafting new guidance that could deny President Biden and other pro-choice public officials Communion due to their support of abortion rights, placing Biden at the center of a political and religious clash.

The draft document will define the meaning of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, a ritual that is part of every Mass and, according to Catholic teaching, transforms bread and wine into the physical body and blood of Jesus Christ.

According to America, a Jesuit magazine, a section of the proposed document would “include the theological foundation for the Church’s discipline concerning the reception of Holy Communion and a special call for those Catholics who are cultural, political, or parochial leaders to witness the faith.” Conservative bishops want to use that as a pretext to deny pro-choice leaders like Biden from receiving Communion.

After three days of debate at a virtual meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 73 percent of attendees voted in favor of drafting the document, while 24 percent were opposed.

Joe Biden
President Biden is a committed Catholic who, in the political arena, supports abortion rights. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

While the USCCB will not name Biden in the document, the debate surrounding Communion has been heavily focused on the nation’s second Catholic president, making it clear he is the motivating factor behind the proposed draft.

“It seems to me this is an unprecedented situation in the country,” Bishop Liam Cary, the head of the diocese of Baker, Ore., said during the debate before the vote on Friday. “We’ve never had a situation like this where the executive is a Catholic president who is opposed to the teaching of the church.”

Biden’s Catholic faith has played a large role in his life and career in politics. He attends Mass every Sunday, carries a rosary in his pocket and often includes Catholic references in his speeches. According to NPR, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who has known Biden for decades, said his positions on political issues go back to "a deeply rooted sense of fairness that he learned from his parents and from the nuns and priests who educated and helped raise him."

In response to the bishops’ vote, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., called them “partisan hypocrites” in a series of tweets for not denying Communion to Republican figures such as William Barr, who resumed death penalty executions after nearly two decades during his tenure as attorney general in the Trump administration.

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Sixty Catholic Democratic lawmakers have released a statement in response to the vote, urging the USCCB not to formalize the practice of withholding the Eucharist based on political beliefs.

“The Sacrament of Holy Communion is central to the life of practicing Catholics, and the weaponization of the Eucharist to Democratic lawmakers for their support of a woman’s safe and legal access to abortion is contradictory. No elected officials have been threatened with being denied the Eucharist as they support and have supported policies contrary to the Church teachings,” the statement read.

Catholic bishops who do not support the document have also emphasized the potential for it to create more division and exclusion within the faith community.

“Once we legitimate public-policy-based Eucharistic exclusion as a regular part of our teaching office — and that is the road to which we are headed — we will invite all of the political animosities that so tragically divide our nation into the very heart of the Eucharistic celebration,” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego warned. “That sacrament which seeks to make us one will become for millions of Catholics a sign of division."

This is not the first time that members of the clergy have tried to withhold Communion from Biden due to his views on abortion. In 2019 he was denied Communion at a Catholic church in South Carolina. Earlier this year, more than 4,300 members of the Notre Dame community signed a petition asking the Catholic university not to invite the president.

(Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
Catholic bishops attending Mass in Garden Grove, Calif. (Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

While Biden has said as recently as 2012 that he agrees with the Catholic Church’s view on abortion, he has refused to impose his religious beliefs on his political policy. When campaigning for the vice presidency, he said: “I do not believe we have a right to tell women that they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor.”

Pro-choice organizations such as Planned Parenthood endorsed Biden in 2020, and after he was elected he proposed a budget in May that would reverse a ban on federal funding of abortion.

Biden’s perspective on abortion seems to reflect that of a majority of U.S. Catholics. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 61 percent of American Catholics over the age of 18 said abortion should be kept legal, while 38 percent said it should be outlawed.

A March Pew Research Center survey found that 67 percent of U.S. Catholics would allow Biden to receive Communion, while 29 percent said he should not be allowed to receive it. While 87 percent of Democrats or those who lean left would allow him to receive Communion, less than half (44 percent) of Republicans agree.

Catholic priest
A Catholic priest at prayer. (Getty Images)

The decision to draft the document also comes in defiance of warnings issued from the Vatican. In May, Pope Francis’s top doctrinal official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, sent a letter to the USCCB warning that the vote could “become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United States.”

The decision to ignore the Vatican, church scholars say, illustrates a conservative backlash within the church in response to the relatively progressive philosophies of Biden and Pope Francis.

“The convergence of a relatively progressive pope and a moderately progressive United States president causes some alarms for some of the so-called traditional or conservative Catholics, who feel their positioning in the faith community is under some threat,” Mark J. Rozell, a political scientist and author, told the Washington Post.

The vote to draft new guidelines surrounding the Eucharist is only the first step. The next USCCB meeting, which is scheduled for November, will allow the bishops to amend the proposed document before voting on its approval.

However, the document can serve only as a guideline and cannot dictate who can or cannot receive Communion. That decision is left to the discretion of the local bishop or the pope. Wilton Gregory, Washington, D.C.’s archbishop, has already said he will not deny Communion to the president.

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