BALTIMORE (RNS) — After months of public debate over whether to deny the Eucharist to President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other elected officials who back abortion rights, the U.S. Catholic bishops approved a document clarifying their teaching on Communion on Wednesday (Nov. 17) that only gestures to politicians.
The highly anticipated 30-page document, presented at this week’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops fall meeting in Baltimore, has split the U.S. church, while the Vatican tried to intervene and some leading Catholic lawmakers took umbrage.
But the draft document that arrived in Baltimore did not mention Biden or any other politician, despite an apparently expanded section addressing the question of Catholic politicians’ roles in the life of the church.
Before the vote, bishops calmly discussed minor wording tweaks such as whether to add victims of human trafficking and the poor to a list of vulnerable populations.
Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, a known conservative firebrand, called for adding a more expansive section detailing “scandal,” the word used in Catholicism to describe misleading the faithful about the church’s teaching. However, his amendment was rejected via voice vote.
An early leaked version of the document stated that “lay people who exercise some form of public authority have a special responsibility to embody Church teaching in service of the common good.”
The new version is more expansive, saying, “Lay people who exercise some form of public authority have a special responsibility to form their consciences in accord with the Church’s faith and the moral law, and to serve the human family by upholding human life and dignity.”
The political subtext wasn’t made explicit until just before the final vote, when Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City stepped to the microphone to praise the document but argue bishops have “a responsibility to have dialogue and conversation with those who are Catholic, but who act in a way contrary to our faith on this basic moral teaching.”
He went on to insist that clerics take “seriously” their “responsibility for the care of the souls of these politicians” — presumably, given Naumann’s previous statements, referring to Democrats who support abortion rights. He called for bishops “to enter into a dialogue” with politicians in the House and Senate, acknowledging “the difficulty of the work that they do” but also pressing them on where they disagree with Catholic teaching.
He added: “If the Catholics in Congress … supported the church’s teaching, we would have had bipartisan supermajorities.”
Shortly thereafter, bishops approved the document by a 222-8 vote, with 3 abstentions.
Once the vote was done, Strickland rose to condemn abortion and call for outreach to politicians in preparation for a planned National Eucharistic Congress.
“I would hope that during these three years we can work to evangelize all the politicians, to have an army of Catholic politicians who are truly Catholic and committed to every aspect to living as the body of Christ,” Strickland said.
But the largely uncontroversial version of the document seemed to satisfy a wide range of bishops — including liberal-leaning clerics who expressed concern in earlier debates. On Monday, Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington told Religion News Service earlier versions of the document were “more polarized,” but that it has since “taken a few changes.”
Some bishops, such as the USCCB president, Archbishop José H. Gomez, have dismissed suggestions the Communion debate was centered on politicians at all, and say it was instead a response to recent surveys showing that rank-and-file Catholics harbor misunderstandings about the sacrament.
In a news conference on Monday, Gomez told reporters “the intention of the document since the beginning was to educate Catholics about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.”
But the Communion debate in Catholic circles was sufficient to move the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to send a letter to Gomez urging him and the USCCB to hold off on the Communion debate, arguing it could lead to the “misleading” perception that abortion and euthanasia are “the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability on the part of Catholics.”
The bishops’ summer meeting in June also provoked a response from a group of 60 Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, who expressed frustration with what they saw as the “weaponizing” of the Eucharist by some bishops.
On Tuesday, as the U.S. bishops met, the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre, signaled that the Holy See was watching. Echoing a recent quote from Francis, he entreated the bishops to resist the “temptation to treat the Eucharist as something to be offered to the privileged few.”
Perhaps the clearest rejection of the bishops came not in words, but through the pontiff’s actions: Francis not only met with both Pelosi and Biden in recent weeks but, according to the president, did not even discuss abortion during his unusually lengthy discussion with the second Catholic commander in chief in U.S. history.
“We just talked about the fact that he was happy that I was a good Catholic and (to) keep receiving Communion,” said Biden. When asked if the pope said he should continue taking the Eucharist, he said yes.
The Vatican has declined to comment on Biden’s account but has not denied it.