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Biden’s abortion rights stance triggers coming debate among Catholic bishops on Communion

President Biden and his sister Valerie Biden depart Mass at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware on Saturday. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)
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Having a U.S. president who attends Mass week after week and talks about his faith is powerful to millions of American Catholics. But to millions of others, a Catholic U.S. president enacting one policy after another in favor of abortion access is a source of shame. This conflict is now headed directly at the U.S. church’s leadership group, which plans a vote about it at its spring conference.

Catholic leaders, like their massive flock, are deeply divided about Joe Biden, only the second U.S. president to come from the country’s largest faith group. Since his election, the increasingly loud right wing of the church has made clear that Biden cannot continue to expand abortion rights and call himself Catholic and go unchallenged.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Wednesday that the group will have a June vote “on the topic of Communion.” Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the USCCB, said the vote will be about whether, at a later date, bishops should draft a document on the topic. She said that because no document has yet been written, it would be premature to discuss its potential contents.

News reports about the focus of a potential statement have been conflicting. The Catholic news site the Pillar last month reported that bishops may focus on clergy, and how and when they might offer Communion to politicians who support abortion rights. The Associated Press on Wednesday, however, quoted a top bishop as saying a future document’s purpose would be to “make clear the USCCB’s view that Biden and other Catholic public figures with similar viewpoints should not present themselves for Communion.”

“Because President Biden is Catholic, it presents a unique problem for us,” Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., who chairs the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, told the AP. “It can create confusion. … How can he say he’s a devout Catholic and he’s doing these things that are contrary to the church’s teaching?”

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The USCCB is akin to an industry group of equals and has no authority over bishops themselves; only the Vatican does. Under canon law, Catholics are under the direction of their local bishop, and Catholic leaders in both D.C. and Delaware — Biden’s two hometowns these days — have already said they will not deny him Communion, the holiest of Catholic sacraments that shows a believer’s union with the whole church and Jesus.

The last time the bishops voted on this, in 2004, the tally was 183 to 6 in favor of leaving the decision about abortion-backing politicians to their bishops. The topic of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights was everywhere that year because of the presidential candidacy of John F. Kerry, a Catholic. More than a dozen U.S. bishops that year said they would deny Communion to the Democratic candidate, on the grounds of his support for abortion rights.

But the Catholic Church in 2021 is different.

Now there is a Catholic U.S. president for the first time since the early 1960s, and one who is passionately open about both his Catholic faith and his liberal politics on topics such as reproductive freedom and LGBTQ equality — both areas with which he and a majority of other U.S. Catholics disagree with their church’s doctrine.

On Jan. 28, President Biden signed two executive orders expanding access to affordable health care and reversing restrictions on abortion access. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden is also facing a very politically divided U.S. church. Catholic voters were split down the middle about Biden, unlike their overwhelming support for John F. Kennedy in 1960.

There is a generation of harder-line figures who came in under Popes John Paul II and Benedict, including San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone and Midwesterner Raymond Burke, a cardinal who sits on the Vatican’s Supreme Court. And there is the papacy of Francis, a more left-leaning reformer who is quickly bringing in and elevating leaders like himself — including Washington’s archbishop, Wilton Gregory, whom Francis a few months ago made the first Black U.S. cardinal.

Experts disagree about whether the polarized U.S. Catholic Church will be more united or further split by the presidency of a cheerful, confident Catholic liberal. And the June bishops’ meeting will shed more light on how church leaders plan to deal with Biden. Will they press harder on abortion purity? Will they seek compromise to work on the many issues on which the church agrees with Biden, such as refugees and immigration and poverty?

The bishops need two-thirds of their conference to move forward with a document, and experts disagree about what two-thirds of the men will agree upon when it comes to this topic.

Michael Sean Winters, an analyst of the church for the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter, said there will not be a two-thirds vote for anything to proceed that will suggest Biden not receive Communion. And, he noted, the Vatican would have to approve it as well.

“This is never going to happen. So the question is, why are they doing it? I think this is all just about trying to delegitimize Biden,” he said. “The thing that’s beyond obvious is they need to talk about getting people back into church after covid, and not going after someone who already goes to church.”

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Brian Burch, of the conservative advocacy group Catholic Vote, is urging the bishops to reel in Biden.

“Officials who repeatedly declare by their actions that they are not in communion with the church, especially on matters of grave moral import, create confusion and division. Nobody celebrates a Catholic who chooses to separate themselves from the church. But when they do, we can’t pretend as if the disunity does not exist,” Burch said. “Any religious institution risks its own credibility and integrity if it allows its adherents to flout its core teachings.”

The U.S. Conference greeted Biden on his election with the creation of a special working group to address issues surrounding the election of a Catholic president who in some cases promotes policies in conflict with Catholic teaching and the bishops’ priorities. Then on his Inauguration Day, USCCB President Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez issued a statement that Biden “will advance moral evils,” including contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage.

The Vatican said on March 15 that priests and other Roman Catholic Church ministers cannot bless same-sex unions. (Video: Reuters)

For reasons that are unclear, the working group was disbanded, and the topic moved to the USCCB’s doctrine committee. The topic of Biden raises complex issues about Catholics in public life, such as what governmental policies actually reduce abortions; how scripture and doctrine should apply to a secular, multifaith society; and how bishops should engage on other life-or-death issues such as stem-cell funding and capital punishment.

The Rev. Kevin Gillespie, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown, where Biden has attended multiple times since becoming president (and did as vice president), said he has spoken about this issue with Gregory, the D.C. cardinal.

“We’re on the same page. The cardinal has said: ‘The Eucharist is not to be used as a weapon.’" Of Biden, Gillespie said, “There are issues we disagree about, [including] abortion. But he’s coming in there for his faith life. This isn’t Politics 101, that’s not the setting. The cardinal [Gregory] has said: ‘This opens ways of communicating and trust.’"

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