Why do some Catholic bishops want to deny Joe Biden communion?

By Giulia Heyward

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops last week advanced a conservative push to deny communion to President Joe Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president, who regularly attends Mass and has spent a lifetime steeped in Christian rituals and practices.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted last week to draft new guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist, in a challenge to Biden for his support of abortion rights, which contradicts church teaching. The new statement will address the sacrament broadly. But ultimately, it could be used as theological justification to deny communion to Biden and Catholic politicians like him who support abortion rights.

The vote was a dramatic show of force by an ascendant conservative movement within Catholicism. Here is a look at some basic issues at the heart of the dispute.

What is the Eucharist?

The Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion, is part of the Catholic Mass. It is a sacrament, a ritual the church believes channels divine grace, that takes inspiration from the Last Supper.

Participants consume bread and wine, which Catholics believe are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ during the Mass.

Who can receive the Eucharist in the Catholic Church?

The sacrament is at the heart of Catholic life, and not everyone may participate. For example, an individual who attends Mass at a Catholic Church, but is not Catholic, would not be allowed to receive communion.

There are other restrictions, too, even for Catholics. For example, a parishioner who has committed what the church calls “grave sin” but has not gone to confession would also be excluded.

The new guidance that will be drafted by the bishops’ doctrine committee is expected to discuss the theology behind the sacrament, and the church’s discipline on how the Eucharist should be received, and by whom.

What is the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion?

The Catholic Church strongly opposes all forms of abortion.

On the day of Biden’s inauguration, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, underscored this point, publicly criticizing the new president’s position.

“Abortion is a direct attack on life that also wounds the woman and undermines the family,” Gomez said. “It is not only a private matter, it raises troubling and fundamental questions of fraternity, solidarity and inclusion in the human community.”

Who decides if Biden can receive communion?

The bishops’ conference does not actually have the power to bar Biden from receiving communion. That power is reserved for local bishops, who have autonomy in their dioceses, or the pope. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington has already said he won’t bar the president. Bishop-elect William Koenig of Wilmington, Delaware, Biden’s hometown, has remained largely quiet on the issue.

The decision by the Catholic bishops to craft a public statement is in part a sign of conservative disapproval toward Biden and other Catholic politicians who publicly advance beliefs that are not aligned with the church’s.

Why are people so invested in the controversy?

The Eucharist has deep meaning for Catholics, especially because it is so central to spiritual life.

All of the church’s sacraments, like baptism and anointing of the sick, are important, but Holy Communion is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, connecting one to God and the church, explained the Rev. Ryan T. Ruiz, dean of the School of Theology and director of liturgy and sacraments at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Cincinnati.

The conflict over Biden and abortion highlights political and cultural divisions within the church community. While the church is opposed to abortion, more than half of U.S. Catholics support legal abortion; a similar percentage finds it morally wrong.

How does the pope feel about the U.S. bishops’ actions?

Ahead of the U.S. bishops’ vote, the Vatican issued a warning against drafting a statement recommending that public figures like Biden be denied communion. But Pope Francis himself has remained silent.

Is abortion the only issue on which current U.S. law is in conflict with Catholic doctrine?

No. One other example is capital punishment, which is legal in more than half of the states and at the federal level. In 2018, Pope Francis declared the death penalty wrong in any instance. Biden said during his 2020 campaign that he would work to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level and encourage states to follow suit.

Another example is same-sex marriage, which became legal nationwide after the Supreme Court in 2015 struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage.

What happens next?

The bishops voted to draft guidelines on the Eucharist. The bishops’ Committee on Doctrine will now propose language that can be amended and debated at the next meeting of the bishops’ conference in November, when there could be a formal vote.

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