BALTIMORE – Roman Catholic bishops in the United States backed away from a direct row with President Biden on Wednesday, agreeing to a new document on the Eucharist that does not mention the president or any politician by name.
The dispute was the question of which Catholic, and under what conditions, would be adequately able to receive communion, one of the most sacred rites in Christianity. For some conservative Catholics, the real question was more specific: Should Catholic politicians who support and publicly support abortion rights be denied this sacrament?
Although the document departed from explicitly challenging Biden, its existence highlighted the divide between conservative American bishops and the Vatican, and pitted some of the country’s most powerful bishops against the country’s Catholic president.
It also highlighted the sprawling divisions among ordinary American Catholics, falling along lines that have become familiar since the presidency of Donald J. Trump that have led to a scramble of both political and religious loyalties. The brave Catholic right wing, including the media and activist groups, is now feeling increasingly free to antagonize Pope Francis and his agenda.
The document, which was approved by an overwhelming majority, was the result of a controversial meeting in June, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted on the draft directive after hours of debate. This vote was a victory for conservative bishops who portrayed Biden in particular as a serious threat to the church. On inauguration day in January, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the convention, issued a statement calling the new president developed policies that “advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and sex.”
This time, the bishops held their discussions on the issue behind closed doors in an executive session the evening before the vote.
Although the new directive is not aimed at individuals, it does emphasize the obligation of Catholic public figures to demonstrate moral consistency between their personal faith and their public actions. The document states that “ordinary persons who exercise some form of public power” have a special responsibility to “serve the human family by preserving human life and dignity.” It says bishops have a “special responsibility” to address situations where there is a gap between public procedures and the teaching of the church.
Pope Francis has not officially commended, but he maintains a warm relationship with Biden, who is the country’s second Catholic president and regularly attends mass. In October, the Pope welcomed the president to the Vatican in a private meeting. Biden later told reporters that the Pope called him a “good Catholic” and that he should continue to receive the Eucharist. Mr. Biden received the Communion at St. Patrick’s Church in Rome the next day.
Asked about the Eucharist issue by reporters in September, the pope said “I have not refused the Eucharist to anyone,” although he noted that he did not intentionally get into the dilemma.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s representative in the United States, noted the disagreement in a letter to the group on Tuesday. “There is a temptation to treat the Eucharist as something offered to the privileged few,” he said, echoing the Pope’s dictum that the Eucharist is not a “reward for perfection.”
The document approved on Wednesday does not address the question of public figures’ right to the Eucharist face to face as some had hoped – and others feared. And the 29-page instructions barely mention the word “abortion.”
Instead, it offers a detailed examination of the theological and spiritual significance of the Eucharist, as Catholics believe that bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ.
The text cites the Twitter feed of 20th-century activist Dorothy Day, Saint Augustine, and Pope Francis.
For years, Catholic leaders have expressed concerns that secular Catholics do not understand the Church’s basic teachings about the Eucharist. Those concerns were compounded when a 2019 Pew poll found that more than two-thirds of American Catholics believe the company’s bread and wine are mere icons.
But the ecclesiastical debate has also been a proxy for battles over politics, power, and the future of the Catholic Church.
The meeting in Baltimore was the first in-person general assembly of the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference since 2019. Last year’s meeting was canceled as a precaution during the coronavirus pandemic. In June, the bishops assembled roughly.
The weeks leading up to the meeting were filled with conflict. In early November, Archbishop Gomez gave a speech rejecting the social justice and “wake-up” movements as dangerous false religions. The speech, which he practically gave before the Conference of Catholics and Public Life, provoked a violent reaction from some scholars and progressives.
In the meeting’s opening address on Tuesday, Archbishop Gomez fired a less dramatic tone, asking how the church could engage an increasingly secular state. He lamented the collapse of a common national “story” that was “rooted in a biblical view of the world and the values of our Judeo-Christian heritage.” The speech was warmly received by the bishops in Baltimore.
The new document emphasizes the distinction between categories of sins and reminds Catholics that they should not have communion in the case of mortal sin – a serious crime committed voluntarily – without first going to confession and obtaining forgiveness.
The text quotes from a 2007 text known as the Aparecida Document, which was named after a congregation of bishops in Central and South America and issued by a commission headed by Pope Francis himself, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. That document became read as a foundational text of his approach. It contains harsh words for “legislators, heads of government, and health professionals” who violate the church’s teachings on abortion and other “grave crimes against life and the family.” She says that Catholics in such positions may not win the company.
In May, the Vatican warned US bishops in a letter that they should engage in “intense and calm dialogue” before drafting the document, warning that the vote “could become a source of discord rather than unity.”
Conservatives described the result as a document indicating the importance of maintaining standards around the Eucharist. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who has been highly critical of Biden, said in an interview that although the document did not mention names, it “admits that not everyone should come forward and receive.”
The conference attracted spectators and demonstrators with a variety of theological and political objections to the proceedings, and to the direction of the Church more broadly.
On Monday, a coalition of liberal groups took part in a prayer rally outside the hotel calling on the bishops “to be priests and not political activists.”
Hundreds of conservative Catholics attended a prayer rally hosted by the right-wing Catholic media, the Church Millitant, on Tuesday in a suite overlooking the waterfront of the hotel where the conference is being held. The gathering, entitled “Enough is Enough,” was intended to express a range of objections to the church hierarchy. Banners in the crowd included “No contact with killers” and “Let’s go Brandon,” a cryptic statement implying Mr. Biden’s indictment.
One expected speaker at the militant Church event, Stephen K. Bannon, has yet to appear after a grand jury indicted him last week on two counts of contempt of Congress after he refused to provide information to the House investigation into the January 6 riots. . Mr. Bannon appeared in federal court on Monday.
Mr. Bannon, the architect of Mr. Trump’s rise as a populist hero, has positioned himself in recent years as a “wrestler” of right-wing Catholicism. The Church Militant event was staged by Milo Yiannopoulos, a media personality who has been largely expelled from mainstream conservative venues for his comments downplaying the severity of child sexual abuse, among other issues.
Gladys Garavito traveled from Jacksonville, Florida to the event with her sister. As a lifelong Catholic, she described her disappointment in recent years with the hierarchy’s failure to stand up to liberal politicians like Biden. “It’s as if there were two Catholic worlds,” Garavito said, describing the growing divide between the “country Catholic club” like the president and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, and “traditional” believers like her.
“This is the church,” she said, pointing to the defiant crowd around her. “This is what the church should be, and this is what the church should be.”