When U.S. Catholic bishops convene virtually for a national meeting Wednesday, they will be divided ideologically as well as physically. They're split over whether to press ahead with an initiative that could — at least implicitly — rebuke President Joe Biden for receiving Communion while supporting abortion rights.
For a body that strives to appear unified and fraternal, it's a highly contentious issue, testing the extent to which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops can work constructively with the Biden administration and whether bishops heed appeals for restraint from Pope Francis and the Vatican.
"If this vote proceeds despite warnings from the Vatican and opposition from many American bishops, it will only underscore how conference leadership puts its own political priorities before church unity and the pastoral model of Pope Francis," said John Gehring, Catholic program director at the Washington-based clergy network Faith in Public Life.
At stake during the three-day meeting is a proposal that the USCCB's doctrine committee draft a statement on the meaning of Communion in the life of the Church that would be submitted for a vote at a future meeting. Conservative bishops pushing for such a statement want it to signal to Biden and other Catholic politicians that support of abortion rights should disqualify them from receiving Communion.
"There is danger to one's soul if he or she receives the body and blood of our Lord in an unworthy manner," Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, one of those advocating for action, asserted recently. He targeted his warning at "those in prominent positions who reject fundamental teachings of the Church and insist that they be allowed to receive Communion."
Yet among the 273 active bishops in the U.S., there are scores who oppose any swift or aggressive action on the issue.
Nearly 70 of them, including several cardinals, last month signed a letter to USCCB president and Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez urging him to delay the discussion until the bishops may convene in person. Citing an appeal from the Vatican to proceed carefully and collegially, the letter said bishops should first hold discussions in regional gatherings.
However, Gomez confirmed in a memo May 22 that the topic would be on the national meeting's agenda.
The bishops requesting a delay included Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, who has made clear that Biden is welcome to receive Communion at his archdiocese's churches. Even bishops pushing for a sternly worded document say they're not seeking to overrule the authority of individual bishops to set their own policies on Communion.
But the broader divide has fueled heated remarks from both sides of the issue. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy has warned against what he called the "weaponization of the Eucharist," while San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has accused opponents of seeking to derail the Communion discussion with "behind-closed-doors maneuvers."
Thomas Groome, a professor at Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry, said some conservative bishops seem to be using Communion to score points even if they can't impose a new national policy.
"They're trying to embarrass President Biden, and the only person who benefits from that is Donald Trump," Groome said. "They will contribute nothing to the faith life of their own Catholic people."
In theory any bishop could make a motion Wednesday to remove the Communion item from the agenda, and a simple majority of votes would suffice for it to pass. But there's been no public indication yet that such a tactic will be tried.
"All signs are the bishops won't even pause," said Steven Millies, associate professor of public theology at Catholic Theological Union, who views the upcoming meeting as a crossroads for the U.S. church.
"Clearly the votes are there to proceed with drafting a document," he said via email. "Even the cautions of a (Vatican) congregation with authority over church discipline and doctrine will not stop the bishops who prefer a culture war over Pope Francis's leadership."
Charles Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, empathized with the desire of some bishops to clarify Catholic teaching on Communion.
"If one persists in mortal sin, without confession, then one is not sufficiently united to the Church in order to take the sacrament," Camosy said via email. He predicted that any eventual USCCB document would encourage local pastors and bishops to enforce this rule, but not seek to make it mandatory.
He also suggested some bishops might want to expand the discussion beyond abortion — for example, citing acts of racism as possible grounds for exclusion from Communion.
The debate is overshadowing the rest of this week's agenda, which has been criticized by some Catholic commentators for failing to address such issues as racism, economic inequality, voting rights and climate change.
One item up for consideration is adoption of a pastoral framework for youth and young adult ministry — a timely topic given the U.S. church's struggles to ease a priest shortage by drawing more young men into seminary.
"This should seem like the most important thing in a church that has visibly lost its grip on the imaginations of most Americans, most Catholics, and practically all young people," Millies wrote. "But the U.S. bishops seem determined to keep abortion and partisan divisions front-and-center, inevitably squelching any focus on ways the church can appeal more broadly to young people."
The bishops will also vote on supporting possible sainthood for two Americans admired for wartime heroism.
Joseph Verbis Lafleur, a priest from Louisiana who served as a military chaplain during World War II, became a war prisoner and died saving fellow service members on a Japanese ship torpedoed near the Philippines.
And U.S. Merchant Marine Capt. Leonard LaRue was the commander of a ship that saved thousands of Korean refugees fleeing Chinese and North Korean forces as the Korean War began in 1950.