Driven by Biden presidency, U.S. bishops next month expected to approve controversial Communion inquiry

Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory attends a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis the day after he raised 13 new cardinals to the highest rank in the Catholic hierarchy, at St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, November 29, 2020. Gregorio Borgia/Pool via REUTERS
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WASHINGTON - U.S. Catholic bishops next month are expected to take a vote aimed directly at the question of whether pro-abortion rights politicians should receive Communion. The vote will go ahead despite efforts from some bishops who think urging the exclusion of Catholics like President Joe Biden is not pastoral.

The decision by leaders of the District of Columbia-based U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to have the vote comes after dozens of U.S. bishops asked for it to be postponed, saying the men are currently too divided. The Catholic news site the Pillar first reported Tuesday that the effort to postpone the vote was led in part by Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory.

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U.S. bishops have long been divided about how to deal with prominent Catholics who support abortion access, but the issue for some became urgent with Biden's election. For other bishops Biden is a boost for the faith as a weekly Mass attender who describes Catholicism as a core of his life and emphasizes key church priorities such as poverty, heath care and refugees. Biden is the second-ever Catholic president, after John F. Kennedy.

After weeks of back and forth - and including a weigh-in from the Vatican - USCCB President Jose Gomez on May 22 sent his fellow bishops an outline of a document they are expected to vote on at the virtual meeting in mid-June. The document asks bishops if they want the USCCB's doctrine committee to start drafting a teaching document about the meaning in the life of the church of Communion, the core sacrament in traditional Catholic practice.

The Pillar reported first on Gomez's letter.

Watchers of the USCCB say the vote is expected to pass. Then the doctrine committee would create a proposed document for the bishops to discuss when they meet in the fall. While the USCCB is more of an advisory industry group and has no authority over what bishops tell their own priests to do in their dioceses, the church aims to work on consensus and a vote spotlighting clergy who give Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians would be striking and historic.

Biden's bishop in Washington, Cardinal Gregory, has already said he won't deny Biden Communion, calling that a politicization of the rite. Gregory is in line with his predecessors in the District and other bishops who condemn abortion but focus on empathizing with the reasons women have them and looking to draw them closer to God and Catholic community.

In other words, the bishops can't vote whether to deny Biden Communion. But the conversation and votes could further divide the already-polarized American Catholic community just as the U.S. Supreme Court readies to vote on abortion rights.

"The focus of this proposed teaching document is on how best to help people to understand the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist as the center of their Christian lives," Gomez, who is archbishop of Los Angeles, wrote to the other bishops in a note with the outline. "It is clear that there is a lack of understanding among many Catholics about the nature and meaning of the Eucharist ... this includes the call to all the faithful for ongoing conversion, moral transformation and missionary discipleship."

The draft letter lays out three basic areas the teaching document will cover to explain "why it matters." It includes that the sacrament is the real presence of Christ, that it's healing, beautiful and unifies the church. The part of the future document most likely to stir controversy is about "eucharistic consistency" -- in other words who should receive communion.

"A person should examine himself ... for anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself," it reads, then adds in parentheses: "The nature of eucharistic communion and the problem of serious sin."

More than 60 bishops wrote to Gomez earlier this month, the Pillar reported Tuesday, asking him to postpone a vote related to Communion. The Pillar said the letter was written on the letterhead of the Washington Archdiocese, and that the effort was led by Gregory and Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich. There are about 280 voting U.S. bishops.

Gregory's office did not return several messages, nor did Gomez's. Two sources familiar with the planning of the USCCB meeting confirmed the letter requesting a delay, but could not confirm Gregory's role.

The bishops' requesting the delay pointed to a recent letter from the Vatican's doctrine arm, urging them to move slowly on a divisive topic, and not to elevate abortion as the only grave matter Catholics should consider. Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's watchdog for doctrinal matters, said in the letter that the bishops must first talk amongst themselves at length, and also bishops must talk with politicians who support abortion rights.

Any policy produced by the USCCB would require near unanimity and could not upend the right of an individual bishop to decide whether to deny a politician Eucharist in their diocese. In addition, Ladaria argued it would be "misleading" to suggest abortion and euthanasia are "the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability on the part of Catholics," Religion News Service wrote earlier this month.

Citing Ladaria's letter, the bishops asking for a delay said his "high standard of consensus...is far from being achieved in the present moment."

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