The bishops will vote again in November, likely offering ammunition to conservatives ahead of the midterm elections.
The American arm of the Roman Catholic Church voted Friday to draft controversial guidance on denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, an implicit salvo against the nation's second Catholic president.
While the vote only advanced a plan to draft the measure, clergy are expected to include language around abortion once they vote again in November.
Proponents argue that the measure is not about any one individual and is not intended to create a national policy but instead a way to re-emphasize the importance of the Eucharist, the Christian sacrament in which churchgoers are offered bread and wine. While transubstantiation, or the idea that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ after consecration, is central to Catholicism, a 2019 poll showed only one-third of U.S. Catholics believe in it, which bishops cited as the impetus for the measure, saying there was a need for a "unified and strong revival of the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the church and in the lives of each one of her members."
Critics, however, say the proposal represents a rightward trend among Catholic clergy, an attempt to weaponize doctrine against a Democratic presidents with an objectionable political agenda.
"What we see are the sorts of visible political partisan divisions that exist outside of the church very much driving these kinds of conversations inside the church," Steven Millies, author of "Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters' Road from Roe to Trump," told The American Independent Foundation.
Central to the conversation is the president, a devout Catholic, who attends church regularly. Some scholars claim that denying the Eucharist to those with beliefs not in line with the church is in fact crucial to its wellbeing.
"When you have the president who is a Catholic and when the church fails to apply its teachings and to uphold its teachings, then it is an extra source of scandal. … it sends a message to everyone that the teaching is not really being taken seriously," Daniel Philpott, a professor of religion and political theology at the University of Notre Dame, told The American Independent Foundation.
When Biden makes visits to local churches, his staff typically steers him clear of bishops or priests that might invite controversy or make political statements, The Washington Post has reported.
Nonetheless, in 2019, that very scenario unfolded when Father Robert Morey, a pastor in South Carolina, denied Biden communion for his support of abortion.
The Vatican tried to weigh in last month, with Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who heads the Catholic Church's doctrinal arm, urging bishops to slow down and engage in more extensive dialogue on the subject, so it does not "become a source of discord rather than unity."
"The polarization around the church in the United States has infected the U.S. Conference on Bishops," Millies said. "The bishops are visibly at odds with one another and with Pope Francis over this and that's not a good look for the bishop's conference."
The more-than-two-hour debate over the measure centered on the idea of Eucharistic consistency or coherence, a term Pope Francis helped coin in 2007. According to a document Francis and other bishops proposed, legislators, heads of governments and health professionals, "cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged."
But a previous dictum issued by Pope John Paul II complicates the debate. In 1998, he decreed that episcopal conferences like the USCCB cannot override the decisions of individual bishops.
"The result of it would really be eucharistic incoherence — there would be a patchwork around the U.S. depending on the preferences of individual bishops," Millies said.
Though the measure would be an indictment of the current president, the debate far predates Biden. Millies points to Cardinal John O'Connor's spat with Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-NY) as the first notable instance of pro-choice politicians butting up against Catholic ritual.
In 1984, O’Connor said, "I do not see how a Catholic, in good conscience, can vote for an individual expressing himself or herself as favoring abortion" and later warned in 1990 that pro-choice Catholic politicians risk ex-communication. O'Connor also took aim at Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY) for her pro-choice views.
O'Connor's comments enraged Cuomo at the time, and he accused the church of meddling in politics, according to "Sons of Saint Patrick: A History of the Archbishops of New York, from Dagger John to Timmytown" by George Marlin and Brad Miner.
Perhaps the first politician to actually be denied communion for their stance on abortion, Lucy Killea's (D-CA) run-in with Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego vaulted her to political victory in a 1989 special election for the California Senate. Maher announced she would be barred from receiving communion, which political analysts said helped to sway a razor-thin election in her favor, according to Marlin and Miner.
Next to earn the ire of the Catholic Church over abortion was John Kerry (D-MA) during his 2004 presidential campaign. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, wrote a letter deeming pro-choice politicians unworthy of communion "due to an objective situation of sin" and even implicating Catholics who voted for them.
"A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia," Ratzinger wrote in a letter entitled "Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles," addressed to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2004.
Ratzinger’s stance was not met without argument, however. McCarrick rebuked him at a 2004 meeting in Denver, telling bishops that "the battles for human life and dignity and for the weak and vulnerable should be fought not at the Communion rail, but in the public square, in hearts and minds, in our pulpits and public advocacy, in our consciences and communities."
The current debate will continue until November when the bishops will vote again on a drafted proposal. Millies said the back and forth wasn't surprising but was the product of centuries of tension between the Catholic Church and the U.S. political system.
"The expectation that Joe Biden can just ignore constitutional law, can just ignore Roe vs. Wade because of his Catholic conscious doesn't really make a lot of sense from the side of the American political and legal system," Millies said. "And so so it's a mismatched expectation that the church has that has grown from not really dealing yet theologically with the reality of modern democratic and constitutional government."
He added, "That's just a long way of saying this is the latest chapter in a 500-year-long struggle and it's not going to end this week."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.