By Gabriella Borter
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are due this week to discuss whether politicians, including President Joe Biden, should receive Communion while supporting abortion and LGBTQ rights, a debate that has divided the clergy and laid bare internal cultural rifts.
As the second Catholic to serve as U.S. president, Biden, a Democrat, has alarmed some church leaders by supporting same-sex marriage and abortion rights, views they say are antithetical to church teachings.
At their virtual annual meeting from Wednesday to Friday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will decide whether to ask the Committee on Doctrine to draft a teaching document on the topic of Communion, a sacrament central to the Roman Catholic faith.
If the conference decides to commission that document, it could be a strong symbolic rebuke of those who espouse views that are contrary to church teachings, including Biden and other Catholics who support same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
The bishops would then review an amendable draft of the document at their fall meeting.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment.
In 2004, the conference published a statement that said individual bishops could decide whether to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a woman’s willful termination of her pregnancy is “gravely contrary to the moral law” and that marital love should be shared between men and women, not people of the same sex.
Biden, a former vice president and U.S. senator, has become a staunch advocate for LGBTQ rights in the past decade. Since taking office in January, he has also rolled back federal restrictions on abortion pills to make them more accessible, and proposed axing a long-standing ban on federal funding for abortion in his 2022 budget.
Although Biden proudly discusses his faith and attends weekly Mass, his views and actions on some issues have become “a matter of scandal” for the Catholic Church, said Bill Dempsey, chairman of Sycamore Trust, an alumni group from the University of Notre Dame that seeks to preserve the school’s Catholic traditions.
Sycamore Trust wrote to the university’s president in February urging him not to invite Biden to speak at the university’s commencement, despite the school’s tradition of inviting presidents, because of Biden’s abortion and same-sex marriage views. Biden declined the school’s invitation due to a scheduling conflict, the Catholic News Agency reported.
Dempsey said he believes the bishops’ conference should take a stand against Biden and other politicians who support abortion rights or risk losing credibility among Catholics.
A Pew Research poll, however, conducted in March, showed 67% of U.S. Catholics believe Biden’s views should not disqualify him from Communion.
DIVISIONS COMING TO A HEAD
Bishops are divided over whether the church should call out what some Catholics see as a contradiction in Biden’s faith and his actions. The new bishop of Biden’s home diocese in Delaware told reporters in April that he was open to a conversation with the president, but did not weigh in on whether Biden should receive Communion.
A Vatican official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, wrote to the conference in May urging caution on the debate over politicians’ abortion views and Communion, saying it could become a “source of discord,” Catholic News Service reported.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, a group that supports LGBTQ Catholics, wrote in an essay published by Religious News Service last week that the bishops were behaving “in a brazenly partisan manner” by voting on the issue and possibly denying Communion to Biden and others.
“Withholding Communion from any Catholic to punish them for their identity, actions or beliefs is coercion,” she wrote. “It violates the duty of care that is the central ministry of the ordained.”
But Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone of San Francisco has advocated for harsher action, arguing in a May letter that Catholics who do not “espouse publicly the faith and moral teachings of the Catholic church” – including politicians like Biden – should not receive Communion.
U.S. Catholic Church membership has dropped nearly 20% in the past two decades, according to a Gallup poll published in March, as the church has been rocked by sexual abuse scandals involving predatory priests and increasing division on social issues.
According to a Pew Research poll from 2019, about 56% of Catholics said they thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and about 61% said they favored allowing gay marriage.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego published an essay days after Cordileone’s letter, warning that withholding Communion from Biden would sow further partisan division among Catholics. Exit polls from the 2020 presidential election showed the Catholic vote nearly split between Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump.
“The Eucharist is being weaponized and deployed as a tool in political warfare,” McElroy wrote.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Aurora Ellis)