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U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approves Communion document without singling out politicians who back abortion rights

Bishops and religious sisters gathered at a hotel banquet hall for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Nov. 16 in Baltimore. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article had an incorrect breakdown of the bishops' vote on the Communion document. It also incorrectly described the rite of Eucharistic adoration; wine is not displayed with the Communion wafer. The article has been corrected.

BALTIMORE — U.S. Catholic bishops Wednesday avoided an internal standoff, approving a statement about Communion that was launched as a way to call out President Biden over his support of abortion rights but after an outcry became a general restating of the sacrament’s centrality.

By a vote of 222 in favor, eight opposed and three abstaining, hundreds of members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at their annual fall meeting passed their first statement on Communion in 15 years.

It comes as church leaders are trying to reignite Catholics’ interest in the rite that their faith says is a real connection with Jesus. Bishops at the meeting announced plans for a massive national gathering in 2024 dedicated to the Eucharist, or Communion. But bishops are also polarized about politics, theology and their view of Pope Francis.

The text called the Eucharist the most profound way God accompanies Catholics and called people back to church, saying “we miss you and we love you.” It also emphasized the “special responsibility” of Catholic public figures to shape their own views based on “the Church’s faith and moral law.” It said bishops are responsible “to work to remedy situations that involve public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law.”

But that’s as close as the document got to Biden, who on Wednesday was in Detroit to promote electric vehicles and his infrastructure bill.

At a news conference after the meeting, Bishop Andrew Cozzens of St. Paul and Minneapolis was asked how months of apparent divergence ended with a fast, overwhelming vote. Bishops, he said, recognized there is a “great crisis” in people not embracing the Eucharist. “There is great passion to do something. That spurred unity.”

The effort to craft the document started after Biden’s election, when the president of the USCCB launched a working group to deal with what he said was the “problem” of a churchgoing Catholic president who supports the current law on abortion access.

While some bishops had wanted the document to call out pro-abortion-rights Catholic politicians and abortion in particular, others said earlier this year that the sacrament was being politicized and damaged. The Vatican sent U.S. bishops a letter warning them that trying to pass a national policy about who receives Communion could easily become a source of discord and that abortion shouldn’t be elevated above all or simplified.

Biden could redefine what it means to be a Catholic in good standing. Catholics are divided on whether that is a good thing.

In the end, the document did not mention politicians who support abortion rights or single out abortion in particular.

“We saw initially a moment of different ideas of what the document should be about. Is it mostly about political responsibility? A Eucharistic revival? A teaching document? The document tried to nuance that,” said Bishop Daniel Flores, of Brownsville, Tex. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all. It’s not adjudicated by popular opinion. We have to be patient, and patient with one another. I think the bishops wanted to speak with patience with one another.”

Some bishops said the mood at the five-day meeting was changed by more prayer. The bishops usually end their meeting with prayer but instead began it that way. They also had 24-7 “Eucharistic adoration,” which is when the Communion wafer that Catholicism teaches is Jesus is displayed for prayer, and is attended to day and night.

Others submitted amendments, hoping for the text to more firmly emphasize the importance of obedience and of the scandal when public figures depart from church teaching. Those were not adopted, nor were efforts to add focus on God’s “preferential love” for the poor, and on victims of human trafficking.

Bishops said they looked to move on. They applauded at length after it passed.

In the end, “I think the bishops pushing this document did not want to be seen as too political. They wanted plausible deniability,” said David Gibson, director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture and an author on the Catholic Church. “They made it so innocuous and generic that to vote against it was to vote against the Eucharist itself. If you want to use the Eucharist in a political way, you can continue to use it in a political way. If you see the Eucharist in a different way, in a more Pope Francis way, then that’s what you’ll do.” The bishops focused on Biden “took a profound mystery and turned it into a morality tale.”

While the Communion document was the most-watched effort of the meeting, the bishops discussed and voted on other issues, including passing the first guidelines in decades on socially responsible investing and voted to go ahead with the 2024 “congress,” which organizers hope will draw 100,000 people.

The bishops for years have been discussing how to revive and attract Catholics back to a deeper connection with the sacrament, but the effort took on a renewed sense of urgency when Biden was elected president.

The document is around 30 pages and is a broad teaching document mostly quoting canon law and papal teachings about Communion.

The final version beefed up how it characterizes the role of public figures. In the months before the meeting, the Committee on Doctrine, which wrote the document, sought feedback from bishops around the country and had been tinkering with the draft.

An earlier draft, leaked this month, said: “Laypeople who exercise some form of public authority have special responsibility to embody church teaching in their service of the common good.”

The document that passed Wednesday added detail about the need for such people “to form their consciences in accord with the Church’s faith and the moral law.”

Opinion: Our duty to challenge Catholic politicians who support abortion rights

The document cites previous USCCB documents, including one in 2006 saying Catholics who “knowingly or obstinately” reject definitive church teachings are “not to be admitted” to Communion and should abstain from presenting themselves.

Some bishops were concerned earlier draft versions did not have the USCCB itself mentioning the priority of the unborn, and instead quoted a pope or some other author.

“To fail to acknowledge the category of human beings that represents the largest destruction of human life in our time would be a glaring omission. Moreover, for some of us, it would turn this document into a problem rather than a help,” San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone wrote in the amendments document in an effort to lobby for more mention of abortion. His suggestion was accepted by the committee.

Cordileone told The Post that Biden’s election forced the need for such a document.

“Many people have been in the situation where they knew they had to do something about an unpleasant situation, but didn’t really feel like doing it. So you keep procrastinating; then something happens that makes it clear that you can procrastinate no longer. … The Biden election made it clear that we cannot put off any longer what we should have done years ago,” he said.

After the vote, Cordileone said the final document managed to strike a balance after a start marked by “angst.” He said, “I sensed a serene coming together.”

President Biden on Oct. 29 said that he did not discuss abortion with Pope Francis and that the pope said that Biden should continue receiving Communion. (Video: The Washington Post)