A committee of Catholic bishops in the United States is getting to work on a policy document that has sparked controversy among colleagues before even a word has been written.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly approved the writing of a document “on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church” that some bishops hope will be a reprimand for politicians who support the right to abortion but continue to receive Communion.
The 168-55 vote to proceed, vehemently opposed by a minority of bishops amid heated debate during virtual meetings, came despite calls from the Vatican for a more cautious and collegiate approach.
Here’s a look at what happened and what’s to come:
IS IT ADDRESSED TO PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN?
USCCB doctrinal committee chair Bishop Kevin Rhoades says no decisions have been made on the final content of the proposed document, but he will not mention Biden or others by name. And it will offer guidelines, it will not establish a mandatory national policy.
However, several bishops on both sides acknowledge the political importance of the document and say that it is inevitably about the president. Supporters say a strong reprimand from Biden is needed because of his recent actions to protect and expand access to abortion, while opponents warn that by doing so they risk being perceived as a partisan force.
“It’s pretty clear that for many bishops, much of the impact is political,” said William Cavanaugh, a professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University in Chicago. “Some of them say this is not about Joe Biden, but in the comments the bishops made at that Zoom session, a lot of them mentioned Biden and revealed the game.”
Biden is the nation’s second Catholic president and the first to take office since abortion became a major political issue. He supports the legality of abortion, while Catholic bishops have long made its abolition a primary political goal.
The issue is particularly important with Biden because he has long been very public in his devotion, fluent in the language of faith and regularly attending mass even on busy days like his own inauguration and the recent G-7 summit. in Great Britain.
WHAT DO BIDEN AND OTHER CATHOLIC DEMOCRATS SAY?
“It’s a private matter, and I don’t think it’s going to happen,” the president said when asked at the White House on Friday.
Sixty Catholic Democrats in Congress signed a letter to the bishops saying: “We solemnly urge you not to go ahead and deny this sacrament, the most sacred of all, the source and the summit of all gospel work on one subject.”
They said they are inspired by Catholic social doctrine to serve those most in need and promote alternatives to abortion. They added that the “arming” of the Communion for those who support abortion rights is inconsistent, since the bishops have not targeted Catholic politicians who endorse other policies that contradict the teachings of the church, such as the death penalty or the positions of hardline immigration and asylum.
WHAT IS THE POSITION OF THE BISHOPS ON THAT?
In a document titled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, last updated in 2019, the U.S. bishops set out their official teachings on the political responsibilities of Catholics. He cites a wide range of political concerns, but also prioritizes abortion.
“The threat of abortion remains our top priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the family sanctuary and because of the number of lives destroyed,” it reads. “At the same time, we cannot rule out or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”
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The bishops also deplore the “inhumane treatment” and family separations of immigrants, as well as “gun violence, xenophobia, capital punishment and other problems that affect human life and dignity.”
But it is much less common for bishops to discuss the denial of communion on issues other than abortion.
CAN THE BARRIER OF THE CONFERENCE OF BISHOPS BUILD COMMUNION?
No. Only the local bishop where he goes to church can do that. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, has made it clear that Biden is welcome to receive Communion in the churches of the archdiocese.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The USCCB Committee on Doctrine will spend the next few months preparing a preliminary document.
At the next national meeting of bishops in November, which is expected to take place in person in Baltimore, the bishops will have the opportunity to offer amendments. For adoption, the final draft would require the approval of two-thirds of the bishops, and then the Vatican itself.
During the debate at this week’s meeting, several bishops suggested meeting regionally in the coming months to discuss their differences face-to-face.
Rhoades indicated that his committee could begin work soon on the uncontroversial sections and await input from regional meetings on the most contentious parts.
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