Roman Catholic bishops in the US have voted to press ahead with moves that could result in Joe Biden being banned from receiving communion because of his stance on abortion, and that risks increasing tensions in a divided church.
After three days of online debate, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted by three to one to draft new guidance on the eucharist. The unexpected strength of support for the move among the bishops was a rebuff to the Vatican, which had signalled its opposition.
Biden, a devout Catholic who attends Mass every weekend and carries a rosary that belonged to his late son, said in response to the vote that the matter was private: “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Conservative bishops are behind the push to draw up a new teaching document expected to say that Catholics who diverge from the church’s standpoint on abortion should be denied holy communion.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who proposed the motion, said: “We need to accept the discipline that those who obstinately persist in grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”
Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leading conservative and critic of Pope Francis, has previously said that politicians who “publicly and obstinately” support abortion are “apostates” who should not only be barred from receiving communion but deserve excommunication.
But some US bishops warned against the “weaponisation” of the eucharist. Speaking at the USCCB meeting, Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, said most priests would be “puzzled to hear that bishops now want to talk about excluding people at a time when the real challenge before them is welcoming people back to the regular practice of the faith and rebuilding their communities”.
The new teaching document, to be drafted by the doctrine committee of US bishops, will not be binding on individual bishops, who have the right to decide whether a parishioner should be denied communion.
Wilton Gregory of Washington and Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Delaware – the dioceses where Biden usually attends mass – have both made it clear that the president is welcome to receive communion at their churches.
Biden, only the second Catholic to occupy the White House after John Kennedy, has said his faith shapes “all that I do” and it will “serve as my anchor” through his term in office.
On abortion, Biden has said he personally believes life begins at conception, but recognises others do not share his view. “What I’m not prepared to do is impose a precise view that is borne out of my faith on other people,” he said in 2015.
The Biden administration has lifted restrictions on federal funding for research involving human foetal tissue, rescinded a Trump policy barring organisations that refer women for abortions from receiving federal grants, and allowed women to remotely obtain a prescription for an abortion pill during the pandemic.
The Catholic church says that Catholics in public life should uphold principles consistent with its doctrine. But in a survey carried out by the Pew Research Center in March, more than two-thirds of US Catholics said Biden’s views on abortion should not disqualify him from receiving communion.
According to exit polls taken during last November’s presidential election, just over half of US Catholics (51%) voted for Biden and 47% voted for Trump.
Catholics for Choice, an abortion rights group, said it was profoundly saddened by the bishops’ vote. Jamie Manson, the group’s president, said: “In a country and church already riven with tension and division, today the bishops chose to be partisan instead of pastoral, cruel rather than Christ-like.”
The bishops will hold a debate on the teaching document in November, when it will require a two-thirds majority for it to proceed.