U.S. Catholic bishops on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a controversial teaching document on who should receive Holy Communion that many believe was aimed at President Joe Biden and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
But the document, passed by a vote of 222-8 at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Baltimore, does not mention Biden or any other politician by name, avoiding a more direct confrontation.
It appeared, however, to empower individual priests to deny Communion to pro-abortion rights politicians should they encounter them.
“It is the special responsibility of the diocesan bishop to work to remedy situations that involve public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law,” the document reportedly said.
The vote is the culmination of year-long debate between America’s largely conservative bishops and the Vatican about whether punitive measures should be taken against public officials who are at odds with the church’s teaching on abortion.
Biden, only the nation’s second Catholic president, who has said his “personal” views were a “private matter,” has openly professed his faith throughout his political career — diligently attending Sunday Mass, infusing speeches with scripture and wearing his late son Beau Biden’s rosary beads.
After his meeting last month with Pope Francis before the G-20 summit, and amid criticism from conservative bishops, Biden said that the pope told him that he should continue receiving Communion and said the pope called him a “good Catholic.”
(MORE: Biden says Pope Francis told him he's a 'good Catholic' amid criticism over his abortion views)
Some bishops, however, see things differently, citing Biden’s vocal public support of abortion rights as a key reason why clarification on who can receive Communion is necessary.
Prominent Catholic politicians, including Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have typically been careful about where they attend Mass so as to avoid controversy.
While Cardinal Wilton Gregory of the Archdiocese of Washington has said that he doesn’t plan to deny Biden Communion, he has publicly questioned whether the president is living up to Catholic Church teachings on controversial issues, including abortion.
“The Catholic Church teaches, and has taught, that life — human life — begins at conception,” Gregory told journalists at the National Press Club in September. “So, the president is not demonstrating Catholic teaching.”
While the document does not mention Biden or other pro-abortion rights Catholic politicians by name, its intent is to issue a stern rebuke of individuals, especially of public officials, who present themselves for Communion after breaking with church teaching on fundamental issues.
In a leaked draft of the document before the conference, the bishops reportedly wrote “there are some sins, however that do rupture the communion we share with God and the Church.”
“As the Church has consistently taught, a person who receives Holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin not only does not receive the grace of the sacrament, he or she commits the sin of sacrilege by failing to show the reverence due to the Body and Blood of Christ,” the document said.
An official at the bishop’s conference insisted that they are staying true to their mission of defending church teachings, pointing to the conference’s outspoken disagreement with the Trump administration’s policies regarding undocumented migrants.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, many American Catholics are divided about whether Biden should be denied Communion over his support of abortion rights.
A majority of U.S. Catholic adults say Biden should be allowed to receive Communion during Mass, while nearly 30% say Biden should not be allowed to receive Communion.
The divide underscores a growing tension amongst American Catholics about who they see as the true authority on matters of faith and what they should believe.
“The U.S. bishops, and Pope Francis see things in very different ways,” said Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University. “American Catholics for the first time in many decades have to decide if they want to follow Pope Francis or U.S. bishops, which is new, because U.S. bishops are traditionally very Roman, loyal to the pope.”