When U.S. Catholic bishops hold their next national meeting in June, they'll be deciding whether to send a tougher-than-ever message to President Joe Biden and other Catholic politicians: Don't receive Communion if you persist in public advocacy of abortion rights.
At issue is a document that will be prepared for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by its Committee on Doctrine, with the aim of clarifying the church's stance on an issue that has repeatedly vexed the bishops in recent decades. It's taken on new urgency now, in the eyes of many bishops, because Biden, only the second Catholic president, is the first to hold that office while espousing clear-cut support for abortion rights.
"Because President Biden is Catholic, it presents a unique problem for us," said Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, who chairs the USCCB's Committee on Pro-Life Activities. "It can create confusion. … How can he say he's a devout Catholic and he's doing these things that are contrary to the church's teaching?"
The document, if approved, would make clear the USCCB's view that Biden and other Catholic public figures with similar viewpoints should not present themselves for Communion, Naumann said.
In accordance with existing USCCB policy, it would still leave decisions on withholding Communion up to individual bishops. In Biden's case, the top prelates of the jurisdictions where he frequently worships — Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Delaware, and Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C. — have made clear that he may receive Communion at churches they oversee.
The document results from a decision in November by the USCCB's president, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, to form a working group to address the "complex and difficult situation" posed by Biden's stances on abortion and other issues that differ from official church teaching.
The doctrine committee, which subsequently was assigned the document project, has not released details about it. Bishops will vote in June on whether the committee should continue its work so a document could be publicly released later. Even critics of the initiative predict it will win overwhelming approval.
Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, is among those who worry the USCCB's emphasis on abortion undercuts Pope Francis' exhortations also to stress issues such as climate change, immigration and inequality. Stowe also worries that the U.S. bishops are missing a chance to find common ground with Biden.
"If a politician is targeted as a negative example by his own church, that sets a sad context in which the church can deal with this Catholic president," Stowe said. "It contributes to the polarization of the church and of society."
Nonetheless, the bishops wanting to send a tough message to Biden are determined to press ahead.
"There's a growing sense of urgency," said San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. "Abortion is not just one among many important issues. … It's a direct attack on human life."
Biden and others "need to understand the scandal that is caused when they say they are faithfully Catholic and yet oppose the church on such a basic concept," Cordileone said.
This month the Biden administration lifted restrictions on federal funding for research involving human fetal tissue. It also rescinded a Trump administration policy barring organizations such as Planned Parenthood from receiving federal family planning grants if they also refer women for abortions. And it said women seeking an abortion pill will not be required to visit a doctor's office or clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Naumann issued vehement denunciations after each action.
Biden "doesn't have the authority to teach what it means to be Catholic — that's our responsibility as bishops," Naumann said, "Whether intentional or not, he's trying to usurp our authority."
The Vatican has not ruled on the specific matter of Communion and politicians supporting abortion in a major teaching document, though the church's in-house canon law says people in a situation of persistent sin shouldn't be allowed to receive Communion. It has issued guidelines for Catholics in political life exhorting them to uphold principles consistent with church doctrine.
In 2004 the then-head of the Vatican's doctrine office, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, told U.S. bishops in response to a question about Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry that priests "must" deny the sacrament if a politician goes to receive Communion despite an "obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin."
The bishops ultimately ignored Ratzinger's advice and voted instead for the policy currently in place allowing bishops to decide themselves whether to withhold it.
Cordileone said the document being drafted by the doctrine committee may contain some guidelines for bishops but will not seek to strip their decision-making authority.
Edward Peters, who teaches canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said the USCCB would have the option of seeking Vatican approval for a unified Communion policy applying to all bishops. But he doubted such a request would be made.
"The bishops' conference does have broad responsibility to speak out on matters that impact the effectiveness and clarity of Church's mission," Peters said via email. "The bad example being given by some high-profile Catholics who consistently fail to protect innocent human life is surely one of those matters."
Some Catholic academics are uneasy about the document.
"Are you really going to deny Communion for the president of the United States? … I don't see anything constructive coming out of it," said Margaret McGuinness, a religion professor at La Salle University.
She noted that a majority of U.S. Catholics, according to polls, say abortion should be legal in at least some cases.
Steven Millies, a professor of public theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said the Catholic church received significant financial support in recent years from conservative philanthropists who are skeptical of Francis and favored Donald Trump over Biden in the 2020 election.
"What we're seeing now is an effort to please donors who want a church which will wage a culture war," Millies said.