When Catholic bishops in the US voted last week to go forward with a measure that could limit the right of some politicians to receive the Eucharist, or Communion, the move highlighted both the continuing politicisation of religion in America and a widening divide within the Catholic Church at large.
Defying the Vatican, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted overwhelmingly last Friday to draft a formal statement on “the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church”, a measure widely seen as aimed at denying Communion to President Joe Biden because of his support of abortion rights.
The move highlighted the continuing culture wars in the United States, which have increasingly involved the Catholic Church. “There has been a cross-contamination between the political world and the spiritual world,” said Claire Giangravè, Vatican reporter for Religion News Service.
Much of the Catholic leadership are single-issue voters on abortion and are therefore closely aligned with the Republican Party. “A significant number of them are so committed to the abortion issue that it takes precedent over everything else,” said Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and a senior analyst with Religion News Service.
Many key advisers in Trump’s inner circle were conservative Catholics, including one-time White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and his counsellor Kellyanne Conway, though Trump himself is not Catholic nor does he identify with any specific Protestant denomination.
Biden is an observant Catholic who attends mass regularly, even when he is traveling, as he did during the G7 summit in Cornwall, England. He is the second Catholic president in the US, after John F. Kennedy. His support of pro-choice legislation, though, means that in the eyes of many, Biden is not a “worthy Catholic”, Giangravè said.
That Biden was the impetus behind the USCCB proposal was clear. Archbishop Joseph Naumann, who chairs the conference’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities told the Associated Press in April that Biden needed to be rebuked for his support of abortion rights.
“They’re using Communion as a weapon to force him to come around,” said Reese. “I think that’s inappropriate and so does the Vatican.”
Conservative bishops have been agitating since Biden’s election in November. Shortly after he won the presidency, Archbishop José H. Gomez, the president of the conference, created a working group to address conflicts that could arise between Biden’s policies, which Gomez said “would advance moral evils”, and the teachings of the Church.
An act of rebellion
The measure was passed by a large margin, with 168 US bishops voting in favour, and 55 opposing and six abstentions, highlighting tensions between the Church in the US and the Vatican.
The vote was effectively an act of rebellion against Vatican guidance.
While Pope Francis did not comment specifically on the measure, he had had previously cautioned against the politicisation of the Eucharist. Communion is “not the reward of saint but the bread of sinners”, he preached earlier this month. And last month, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Secretary-General of the International Theological Commission, wrote a letter to the US bishops cautioning that the vote could sow discord within the US Church.
Observers, though, note that the tension in the Church in the US existed well before the vote was taken. “In the US there is this polarization due to the political events of recent years,” said Giuseppe Rusconi, a longtime Vatican correspondent and author of the Rossoporpora blog about the Church.
That divide has grown since the ascension of Pope Francis, who has a more progressive agenda than his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and who has spotlighted the church’s responsibility to the poor and environmental stewardship. The bishops and cardinals he has appointed tend to favor his agenda. That hasn’t always played well with the old-timers.
“They’re fighting a rear-guard action against Francis in the hopes that he will soon die and be replaced by someone more like John Paul II or Benedict,” Reese said.
At the core, the two sides agree that Catholic politicians should not support abortion rights. “It’s not a theological difference between the Vatican and US bishops, it’s a question of method,” Giangravè said. “The Vatican needs to think on a global scale, so they have to keep in mind that Catholic teaching believes that abortion is a sin, and how do you find a way to talk and negotiate with politicians who support this?”
Much ado about nothing?
Ultimately, the vote is unlikely to have any lasting effect. Under Church law, in order to be adopted, the measure would need to garner unanimous backing from bishops in the US or have the support of two-thirds of them and Vatican approval, which is extremely unlikely to be granted.
“It’s not going to get to that point,” a senior Vatican official told the New York Times. “It’s inconceivable.”
Even if passed, the guidance would not be binding. Only the local bishop can decide to withhold Communion from a parishioner. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, has made it clear that he would not deny President Biden Communion.
“It’s almost more a media campaign than anything else because legally the bishops conference cannot have a national policy,” Reese said.
When asked about the vote, Biden said that it was “a private matter and I don’t think that’s going to happen”.
The text of the guidance on Communion has not yet been written, but according to the proposal, “the statement will be addressed to all Catholics” and 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”.
Whether the move was borne more of political or of doctrinal concerns will be clearer when the draft is presented.
“It will be interesting to see how this document emerges,” Giangravè said. “Will they get stuck on abortion, or will they educate? That will be the litmus test to see if they are influenced by politics…or if their aim is to instruct.”
The bishops are expected to vote on it at their next meeting in November.