For Biden’s team, that sometimes has meant dedicating staffers during busy travel weeks to make sure Biden, who supports abortion rights, avoids priests and bishops who would deny him the sacrament over his stance on the issue. The president was denied Communion in 2019 by a South Carolina priest who said any leader “who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.”
John Kelly, who did Catholic outreach for the Democratic National Committee, was part of a team in 2008, during the Obama-McCain race, that would find welcoming parishes for Biden. He remembers the angry backlash from Biden’s staff when he suggested one of Biden’s priest friends simply travel with the campaign to avoid complications.
“They felt, and they were right, that he wants to go to church and should have the right to. He wants to worship with his community. His understanding of the Eucharist was it shouldn’t be done hidden in private. I very much felt the Eucharist was being weaponized,” Kelly said.
This week at their annual spring meeting, the bishops of the U.S. Catholic Church — the largest faith group in the country — will debate the meaning of Communion and whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be barred from receiving it. The conversation and a vote among the church’s top clerics could have significant ramifications because it centers on one of the most intimate moments of Catholic worship and binds it uniquely to a specific political and policy position.
The vote comes after two decades of deliberate, passionate focus by Catholic political and theological conservatives to make abortion a litmus test for the sacrament, while church teachings on poverty, climate, racism and authoritarianism, among other things, become more subjective to follow. It also comes after years of hardening toward abortion opponents within the Democratic Party.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting, which will run Wednesday to Friday and is virtual, will feel bizarre to many rank-and-file Catholics who have never heard of someone being questioned or turned away before Communion. Many who consider Biden a committed Catholic see the vote as a sign of sheer partisan politics, not theology. To others, who see society’s fast-liberalizing views on sexuality, marriage and reproduction as an ultimate threat, the conversation and vote seem long overdue.
The country’s approximately 280 voting bishops have other items on their agenda, including ministry to families and Native Americans. But the most watched and controversial item on their schedule is their plan to discuss Communion.
Bishops have been studying for years how to revive Communion; new polls show the overwhelming majority of Catholics don’t believe the church’s teachings that the rite is the literal presence of God.
But Biden’s candidacy, for the most conservative, created a new kind of urgency.
At a USCCB meeting in the fall of 2019, they discussed whether to make abortion officially their No. 1 concern. “We are at a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle to make a real challenge to Roe v. Wade, given the possible changes to the Supreme Court. We should not dilute our efforts to protect the unborn,” Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Ore., told his fellow bishops, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
The group then overwhelmingly voted for the first time to call abortion the “preeminent priority” in a letter attached to its voting guide. The term had been used in some diocesan voting guides before.
When Biden was elected the following fall, the USCCB at itsNovember meeting called a working group of bishops to deal with the “difficult” situation of the second-ever Catholic president being a strong advocate for policies the church opposes on abortion and LGBT legal rights. The working group recommended creating a document on “eucharistic coherence.”
Then in May, a letter to the bishops arrived from the Vatican. Leaked to the Catholic news site the Pillar, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine-making arm warned the USCCB president that the process of creating a policy on Catholic politicians could be divisive and to move forward only if it created more unity. He pointed the bishops to a 2002 document signed by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who was then head of the doctrine-making body, a complex and subtle paper that warns about moral relativism as well as violating people’s individual conscience.
“It would be misleading if such a statement were to give the impression that abortion and euthanasia alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching,” Cardinal Luis Ladaria wrote to the Americans.
Recently, almost 70 bishops wrote to Archbishop José Gomez, the USCCB president, to urge a delay in any discussion on Communion until they could meet in person and work toward more unity. But Gomez said this week’s meeting would include a discussion about “the meaning of the Eucharist” and would be followed by a vote on whether to have the USCCB’s doctrine committee draft a document on the topic.
The vote must get two-thirds of bishops to proceed.
Communion has been politicized before. Catholics who have advised Republicans back to George W. Bush pressed bishops on the Communion-denial issue, seeing a way to energize their base and peel off Catholic voters. Multiple U.S. bishops vowed publicly not to give then-candidate John F. Kerry Communion, and parish parking lots during election seasons became battlegrounds, with Democrats handing out USCCB voter guides that featured a range of issues and Republicans handing out pamphlets highlighting the church’s forceful teachings against abortion.
When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2009, 64 congressional Democrats who oppose abortion access approved it only because of an amendment barring federal funding for abortion. Today, there are three Democrats who reliably vote against abortion, according to the group Democrats for Life of America.
In the early centuries of the Church, the norms on receiving Communion swung dramatically, said the Rev. John Baldovin, a professor of historical liturgy and liturgical theology at Boston College. In the 13th century, Communion and confession were required at least once a year, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that there was a real movement for frequent Communion.
Even then, Catholics didn’t fully take to it until after the strict pre-Communion fasting requirements — from midnight on — were relaxed in the 1950s. Catholics linking the right to receive Communion with secular politics is primarily an American phenomenon, he said.
Biden attends Mass and receives Communion weekly in D.C. and at home in Wilmington, Del.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Washington archbishop; Delaware Bishop William Koenig; and his predecessor, Bishop Francis Malooly, who retired earlier this year in Wilmington, all declined to comment.
The Rev. Kevin Gillespie, pastor at Holy Trinity in Georgetown, one of Biden’s most regular parishes, declined to comment for this story but spoke to The Post about Biden a few months ago. The two men disagree about some issues, including abortion, he said.
“But he’s coming in there for his faith life. This isn’t Politics 101. [Gregory] has said: ‘This opens ways of communication and trust, and the president is doing a lot in terms of Catholic social justice teaching.’ I see him as a man of faith being nurtured, being fed by the Eucharist in his journey of faith,” Gillespie said.
But Archbishop Joseph Naumann, head of the USCCB’s antiabortion committee and one of the architects of this week’s vote, told The Post last month that the climate is now urgent. Some abortion rights advocates, he said, characterize abortion as “health care” — including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during his campaign.
“This is a much different moment,” Naumann said. Also, “the president has created a problem for himself and for the church by acting in a way that’s obviously contrary to very fundamental moral doctrines of the church” and then calls himself a devout Catholic. “It’s really a matter of integrity on his part. He shouldn’t present himself for Communion.”
Many U.S. Catholics strongly disagree with the withholding of Communion from Biden, according to the Pew Research Center. Sixty-seven percent said he should be allowed to receive Communion during Mass. However, of Catholics who identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, 55 percent said he should be disqualified.
The impact of the bishops’ meeting seems likely to be more symbolic than tangible. The Vatican has seemed dismissive of a document that would create black-and-white lines on who gets Communion, and such decisions are made by individual bishops, not the bishops’ conference.
Stephen Schneck, head of the Franciscan Action Network and a former Catholic adviser to Biden, said he doesn’t think the drive to craft a document will pass the two-thirds voting threshold this week.
“This will be mostly something played out in the media. Then we’ll be right back where we started, with the local bishop.”
For the Vatican, the discussion among U.S. bishops highlights one of Pope Francis’s greatest challenges — contending with a group of conservative prelates who have sometimes been among the pontiff’s most vocal opponents in culture war clashes. Francis several years ago had quipped it was an “honor if the Americans attack me.” He has appointed numerous American bishops, but the leadership of the U.S. bishops conference remains composed largely of more right-leaning figures who have been driving the Communion debate.
That debate is complicating the notion that Biden might enjoy an easier diplomatic relationship with the pope than did former president Donald Trump. Biden is far more aligned than Trump with Francis’s immigration and climate goals. But if Francis too closely cozies up to Biden, he’ll risk a deeper backlash among U.S. bishops.
“I don’t think any pope wants to look too hostile to his bishops, generally,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University professor of theology and author of the book “Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.”
A conservative outlet on Monday incorrectly reported that Biden had been planning to squeeze in a trip to visit the pope during a series of meetings in Europe. The White House said no such trip was in the works. The report, based on a single unnamed source, also said that Biden’s camp had requested — and been denied — a private Mass with the Vatican. Vatican watchers responded to the report with eye rolls, saying that Francis does not hold Masses with world leaders — and it was unlikely the White House would ask.
Chico Harlan in Rome contributed to this story.