U.S. Catholic bishops on Friday voted to back a measure that could be an early step toward limiting Communion for President Biden and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

The vote to create guidelines on the meaning of Communion came after a 3½-hour emotional discussion Thursday at the annual spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Multiple bishops clashed over how, or if, they should single out the church’s teaching on abortion. And if they should single out politicians.

The draft document about the meaning of the Eucharist, a ritual that Catholicism teaches transforms bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Jesus, needed a simple majority vote. The measure passed 168 to 55, with six abstentions.

After Catholic bishops on June 18 voted to create guidelines that might bar him from the Eucharist, President Biden suggested it would not be implemented. (The Washington Post)

The conference’s doctrine committee will present a draft at the bishops’ fall meeting for debate. Approval of a final document would need the support of two-thirds of bishops. Whatever the outcome of the final decision, it would still be up to the individual bishop to decide how to implement it in his diocese.

The presidency of Biden, the second Catholic to serve in that position, is revealing deep divisions among U.S. bishops. On Friday, the president was asked about the effort that could allow some bishops to deny him and others Communion over their support for abortion access. He called it “a private matter.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Biden said.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory, who leads D.C.’s archdiocese and has stated that his priests would not deny Communion to Biden, said a document on such a sensitive topic needed more time and discussion.

“The choice before us at this moment is either we pursue a path of strengthening unity or settle for a document that will not bring unity but will very well further damage it,” he said.

Part of the division on display stems from the focus on Biden, a lifelong Catholic who attends Mass regularly, and what some say was a failure to criticize President Donald Trump, who has had two divorces, three marriages and an extramarital affair, and whose administration separated families at the border and revived the federal death penalty.

There were also explosive, profound differences about theology, pastoring, human nature and a political backdrop that set off a rare public show of division at the bishops’ conference. One bishop said the men were meeting at a time of “historic opportunity.” Yet another said he saw a national push for abortion access “the most aggressive I’ve ever seen.”

The church is grappling with a decline in the number of adherents to the faith, especially among some millennials, and a sense that by ignoring Catholic politicians who support abortion access it is being asked to compromise on one of the core aspects of its belief.

Each side said the other was jeopardizing the church’s reputation.

“Our credibility is on the line. … The eyes of the whole country are on us. If we don’t act courageously, clearly and convincingly on this core Catholic value, how can we expect to be taken seriously on another matter?” said San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. He was among the members who urged the creation of the document, an idea that grew from Biden’s election in November and concern about the image of him receiving Communion at Mass each week.

But San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy said the threat was the vote — which would link a politician, their policy position and the Eucharist, considered the heart of Catholic worship.

“The Eucharist itself will be a tool in vicious partisan turmoil. It will be impossible to prevent its weaponization, even if everyone wants to do so,” he said. “Once we legitimize public-policy-based exclusion … we’ll invite all political animosity into the heart of the Eucharistic celebration.”

President-elect Joe Biden responded to a reporter's question about religious services during the pandemic as he left a church in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 21. (The Washington Post)

A document that so elevates the sinfulness of an abortion policy, McElroy argued, would fatally undermine the bishops’ ability to speak on other things, “including the condemnation of poverty, racism and environmental destruction.”

In addition to disagreement about the issues, another sentiment was on display Thursday: distrust.

The bishops who want to create the document offered conflicting answers on whether its purpose was to primarily restate church teachings on the Eucharist, and thus reinvite people back to its beauty, or whether it might focus on Catholic politicians or abortion.

Bishops who opposed creating the document cited past statements Thursday showing that some appeared to want something akin to a national policy on more definitive norms about who is excluded from Communion.

“I see a discrepancy, in what it is intended to do, and repeated interventions that it’s about a Catholic president,” said Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky.

Catholicism teaches that the Eucharist is the real presence of Christ for worshipers who have prepared by examining their sins, confessing periodically and fasting. Yet the bishops raised starkly different perspectives. Does a good Catholic priest focus on sin and repentance or first inclusion? Elevate abortion above everything else or not? Is it a priest’s job to assess policy solutions to a sin or stick to teaching theology?

The bishops have talked for several years about reviving interest in the sacrament of the Eucharist and at this week’s meeting planned a major, multiyear project. But when Biden was elected last fall, the USCCB created a working group to deal with what its president, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, said was the “problem” of Biden and his policies on abortion and LGBTQ protections. That working group recommended that the conference produce a document on “Eucharistic consistency.” Some bishops immediately expressed concerns about the aims of such a group; others celebrated it.

The purpose of the document became less clear, however, as it shifted from the working group to the USCCB’s doctrine committee earlier this year. Then in May the head of the Vatican’s doctrine arm wrote to the USCCB president encouraging the men to focus on first finding unity among themselves, and then talking with the Catholic politicians themselves before moving ahead.

Pope Francis has not directly addressed the bishops’ vote but his papacy has been defined by a constant focus on inclusion and welcome. Preaching earlier this month at a feast dedicated to the Eucharist, Francis said Communion “is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners. This is why [Jesus] exhorts us: ‘Do not be afraid! Take and eat.’ ”

Sixty Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives released a statement Friday meant to highlight their party’s synchronicity with Catholic teaching.

“We are proud to be part of the living Catholic tradition — a tradition that unfailingly promotes the common good, expresses a consistent moral framework for life, and highlights the need to provide a collective safety net to those individuals in society who are the most vulnerable,” said the statement, highlighting party policies on child care, health care and efforts to reduce unintended pregnancies.

“In all these issues, we seek the Church’s guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience,” the statement said.

Over the years, several Catholic politicians have been threatened with the denial of Communion, or worse, for views that did not adhere to the church’s teaching. In 1984, Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-N.Y.) was threatened with excommunication for his views on abortion rights but was not barred from Communion. In 2004, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) was barred from Communion by an Illinois bishop, also over abortion.

A longtime leader of the USCCB who now runs a Catholic think tank at Georgetown University said that it was striking simply that the vote had occurred.

“In my experience, it is unprecedented for the Conference to simply push forward when so many bishops are opposed," said John Carr, who worked at the conference from 1987 to 2012, including as head of its domestic policy arm. "A key question is what the USCCB leadership heard and will they seek an approach that includes more dialogue, greater engagement, and less judgment.”

Kathleen Cummings, a historian at the University of Notre Dame who runs the school’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, said the U.S. Catholic Church for many decades was defined more by questions of how and whether Catholicism — then mostly a faith of immigrants — could fit into America. Questions of being outsiders united them more, she said.

But in recent decades, with the integration and rising power of Catholics in America, along with the sexual revolution, the divisions became more internal. And they have been building.

“ ’Us against them’ — it worked for unity. Now, it’s us against us,” she said.

Catholic law gives the power to offer or withhold Communion to each bishop within his diocese, though the burden is normally on the worshiper to examine their own conscience before coming up. The USCCB doesn’t have the authority to mandate or even teach without two-thirds agreement and approval from the Vatican, said Nicholas Cafardi, a prominent canon lawyer and former dean of Duquesne University.

“The bishops have a right to promote Catholic morals, but what they don’t have a right to do is to tell politicians which laws are necessary to enforce those morals,” he said. “They’ve left the grounds of: ‘What’s the best way to handle the problem?’ They say the only way to fight this is to make abortion unavailable. You just changed gears.”

Cafardi added: “I think our president is pro-life because he favors laws that will make abortion much less likely, and they miss the sophistication of that.”