The country’s Roman Catholic bishops advanced a conservative push in June to deny communion to President Biden, the country’s second Catholic president, who regularly attends Mass and has spent a life steeped in Christian rituals and practices.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has voted to draft new guidelines on the sacrament of the Eucharist, in a challenge to Mr Biden for his support for abortion rights, which contradicts the teaching of the ‘Church. The new statement will address the sacrament broadly. But ultimately, it could be used as theological justification to deny communion to Mr. Biden and Catholic politicians like him who support abortion rights.
The vote was a dramatic show of force by a rising conservative movement within Catholicism. Here is an overview of some fundamental 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 which, according to the church, channels divine grace, which is inspired by the Last Supper. Participants consume bread and wine, which Catholics believe are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ during Mass.
Who can receive the Eucharist in the Catholic Church?
The sacrament is at the heart of Catholic life, and not everyone can participate in it. For example, a person who attends Mass in a Catholic church, but is not Catholic, would not be permitted to receive Communion.
There are also other restrictions, even for Catholics. For example, a parishioner who has committed what the church calls a “gross sin” but did not confess would also be excluded.
The new guidelines to be drafted by the bishops’ doctrine committee are expected to discuss the theology behind the sacrament and church discipline on how the Eucharist should be received and by whom.
What is the position of the Catholic Church on abortion?
The Catholic Church strongly opposes all forms of abortion.
On the day of Mr. Biden’s inauguration, Bishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, underlined this point, publicly criticizing the new president’s position.
“Abortion is a direct attack on life which also hurts the woman and undermines the family,” Bishop Gomez said. “This is not just a private matter, it raises troubling and fundamental questions of brotherhood, solidarity and inclusion in the human community.”
Who decides if Mr. Biden can receive communion?
The episcopal conference does not really have the power to ban Mr. Biden from receiving communion. This power is reserved for local bishops, who have autonomy in their dioceses, or for the pope. Washington’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory has already said he won’t rule out the president. Bishop-elect William Koenig of Wilmington, Delaware, Mr. Biden’s hometown, has remained largely silent on the issue.
The Catholic bishops‘ decision to issue a public statement is in part a sign of conservative disapproval of Mr. Biden and other Catholic politicians who publicly advocate beliefs that are not aligned with those of the Church.
Why are people so invested in controversy?
The Eucharist has deep meaning for Catholics, especially because it is so central to spiritual life.
All the sacraments of the church, such as baptism and the anointing of the sick, are important, but Holy Communion is the “source and summit” of Christian life, linking to God and to the church, explained the Father 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 Mr. Biden and abortion highlights political and cultural divisions within the church community. While the church opposes abortion, more than half of American Catholics support legal abortion; a similar percentage find it morally objectionable.
What does the pope think of the actions of the American bishops?
Ahead of the US bishops’ vote, the Vatican issued a warning against drafting a statement recommending that public figures like President Biden be denied communion.
And after a private audience with Pope Francis on Friday, Mr Biden told reporters the Pope had called him a “good Catholic” and said he should continue to receive Communion.
Responding to reporters who asked if Francis had told him during their 75-minute meeting whether he should continue to receive Communion, Mr Biden replied: “Yes”.
Asked to confirm Mr. Biden’s remarks, Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesman, said the Holy See limited its comments to a press release on the topics discussed during the meeting and added: “C is a private conversation”.
Is abortion the only issue on which current American law conflicts with Catholic doctrine?
No. Another example is capital punishment, which is legal in more than half of the states and at the federal level. In 2018, Pope Francis said the death penalty was wrong in all cases. Mr 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 write guidelines on the Eucharist. The Committee of Bishops on Doctrine will now propose wording that can be amended and debated at the next Episcopal Conference meeting in November, when there may be a formal vote.
Jason Horowitz and Katie Rogers contributed report.