The bishops will decide in June whether or not to send the message to politicians: do not receive communion if you persist in publicly defending abortion rights.
WASHINGTON – When America’s Catholic bishops hold their next national meeting in June, they will decide whether to send a harsher message than ever to President Joe Biden and other Catholic politicians: don’t receive Communion if you persist in publicly defending the right to abortion.
This is a document that will be prepared for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by its Committee on Doctrine, with the aim of clarifying the Church’s position on an issue that has repeatedly irritated bishops. over the past decades. It takes on a new urgency now, in the eyes of many bishops, because Biden – only the second Catholic president – is the first to hold the post while espousing clear support for abortion rights.
Such a position, taken by a public figure, is “a grave moral evil,” according to Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, who chairs the USCCB’s committee on pro-life activities and believes he is. necessary to publicly reprimand Biden on the matter.
“Because President Biden is Catholic, this presents a unique problem for us,” Naumann told The Associated Press. “It can create confusion. … How can he say that he is a devout Catholic and does these things that are contrary to the teaching of the church?
The document, if approved, would make it clear the USCCB’s view that Biden and other Catholic public figures with similar views should not show up for communion, Naumann said.
RELATED: Biden Begins to Rescind Trump’s Ban on Abortion Referrals
RELATED: FDA Says Women Can Get Abortion Pill Through Telemedicine
In accordance with existing USCCB policy, it would still leave the decisions to refuse Communion to individual bishops. In Biden’s case, the leading prelates in the jurisdictions where he frequently venerates – Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Delaware, and Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, DC – have made it clear that Biden is welcome to receive fellowship in the churches they oversee.
The document under development results from a decision taken in November by the president of the USCCB, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, to form a working group to address the issue. “Complex and difficult situation” posed by Biden’s positions on abortion and other issues that differ from official church teaching. Before disbanding, the group proposed drafting a new document addressing the issue of communion – a project entrusted to the Doctrine Committee.
The committee did not disclose details of its work. Naumann said the issue will be discussed at the USCCB meeting in June and the bishops will vote on whether the committee should continue working on the document so that it can be made public later.
A two-thirds majority would be needed for work to continue, Naumann said. But even critics of the initiative, such as Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., Predict the company will gain overwhelming approval.
Stowe is one of a relatively small group of American bishops who fear that the USCCB’s focus on abortion will undermine Pope Francis’ exhortations to the church to also focus on issues such as climate change, immigration and inequalities. Stowe is also concerned that the American bishops may miss a chance to find common ground with Biden on such issues.
“If a politician is targeted as a negative example by his own church, it creates a sad context in which the church can deal with that Catholic president,” Stowe said. “It contributes to the polarization of the church and of society.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego expressed similar concerns.
“I do not see how depriving the president or other political leaders of the Eucharist on the basis of their public policy position can be interpreted in our society as anything other than a militarization of the Eucharist… an online forum in February.
Nonetheless, the bishops wishing to send a harsh message to Biden are determined to move forward.
“There is a growing sense of urgency,” Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordileone said. “Abortion is not just one problem among many. … It is a direct attack on human life.
Cordileone contemplates a statement from the USCCB to Biden and others “that moved them in their consciousness.”
“They need to understand the scandal that is caused when they say they are faithfully Catholic and yet oppose the church on such a fundamental concept,” he said.
The American Cardinal Raymond Burke raised the possibility of an ultimate sanction of Catholicism. He says politicians who “publicly and stubbornly” support abortion are “apostates” who not only should be banned from receiving Communion but deserve excommunication.
Bishops already troubled by Biden’s stance on abortion became more dismayed by three measures by his administration in mid-April.
He lifted restrictions on federal funding for research involving human fetal tissue. He repealed a Trump administration policy prohibiting organizations such as Planned Parenthood from receiving federal family planning grants if they also refer women for abortions. And he said women looking for an abortion pill won’t be forced to visit a doctor’s office or clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing women to get a prescription via telemedicine and receive the pill by mail.
Naumann, who issued heavily worded denunciations after each action, told AP he was frustrated that Biden could allow them while identifying himself as a devout Catholic.
“He does not have the power to teach what it means to be Catholic – it is our responsibility as bishops,” Naumann said, “whether he is intentional or not, he is trying to usurp our authority.
The Vatican has not ruled on the specific issue of fellowship and politicians supporting abortion in a major teaching document, although internal church canon law says people with persistent sin should not. not be allowed to receive Communion. He also issued guidelines for the behavior of Catholics in political life, urging them to uphold principles consistent with Church doctrine.
Former Vatican Doctrine Bureau Chief Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, future Pope Benedict XVI, told American bishops in 2004 that priests “must” deny the sacrament if a politician is going to receive Communion despite “stubborn persistence. in manifest grave sin, ”including the sin of constantly campaigning for permissive abortion laws.
Ratzinger wrote a confidential letter outlining the principles to American bishops in response to their question of whether to deny Communion to John Kerry, who was the Democratic presidential candidate. In the end, the bishops ignored Ratzinger’s advice and instead voted for the policy currently in place allowing the bishops to decide for themselves whether to withhold it.
The document being drafted by the doctrine committee may contain guidance for bishops, Cordileone said, but it will not seek to strip their decision-making authority.
“This will put the burden of responsibility on Catholics who occupy an important place in public life,” he said.
Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, who has sharply criticized Biden’s stance on abortion, told the AP he supported the creation of a national policy on fellowship, as opposed to the current “patchwork approach”. He said bishops should first have a private conversation with someone considered to be in a state of sin and refuse Communion if they persist.
Edward Peters, who teaches canon law at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said the USCCB would have the option of seeking Vatican approval for a unified fellowship policy that applies to all bishops. But he doubted that such a request would be made.
“The bishops’ conference has a great responsibility to speak out on issues that impact the effectiveness and clarity of the Church’s mission,” Peters said via email. “The bad example set by some high profile Catholics who consistently fail to protect innocent human life is certainly one of those issues. “
Some Catholic academics are not comfortable with the document.
“Are you really going to deny the President of the United States Communion?” asked Margaret McGuinness, professor of religion at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “I don’t think it’s going to shake his faith. … I don’t see anything constructive coming out of it.
She noted that a majority of American Catholics, according to polls, say abortion should be legal in at least some cases.
Steven Millies, professor of public theology at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said the Catholic Church has received significant financial support in recent years from conservative philanthropists who are skeptical of Francis and have favored Donald Trump versus Biden in the 2020 election.
“What we are seeing now is an effort to please donors who want a church that will wage a culture war,” Millies said.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.