BALTIMORE, Md., Nov 17 (Reuters) – U.S. Roman Catholic bishops reaffirmed on Wednesday that Catholics who defy church teaching without repentance should refrain from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper but did not directly blame politicians for supporting abortion rights as some conservatives had hoped.
Communion has sparked a heated debate in the Church about whether politicians like U.S. President Joe Biden, who advocates for abortion rights, should be allowed to receive the sacrament, a key tradition of faith.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that abortion is immoral. Biden, the first Catholic after U.S. President John F. Kennedy, has said he personally opposes abortion but supports a woman’s right to choose and has vowed to protect that right before state laws restricting it.
The communion document, which was approved by a large number of votes by the bishops at their meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, does not explicitly mention Biden or other politicians by name, nor does it focus on the issue of abortion. It says that Catholics who exercise public power “have a special responsibility” to abide by the moral law of the church.
Although the document offers a symbolic rebuke, it does not present any new instructions that would prevent Biden from receiving supper. It reiterates a statement issued by the conference in 2006 stating that Catholics who “long-standing” reject the moral teaching of the church should refrain from contact.
As the bishops decided to draft the document at their June conference, a discussion of what should be said in it has revealed political disagreements in the church.
Some conservative bishops wanted it to reprimand politicians who support abortion rights and set clear criteria for receiving the sacrament. Others warned against setting communion weapons and sowing further divisions among the broken members of the Church.
Nearly 20% of U.S. Catholics have resigned from the church in the past two decades, according to a poll conducted by Gallup in March, after sexual abuse scandals involving predatory priests have erupted and Catholics have disagreed on social issues.
About 55% of Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 59% of the total population, according to a survey conducted by Pew Research in April.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades, chairman of the conference’s teaching committee, dismissed the idea that the political debate over the writing of the document would have exacerbated the divisions within the Church.
“Maybe the discussion helped the general public know how important the Holy Eucharist is, or else we won’t even discuss the reception,” he said Wednesday.
THE DOCUMENT IS SENT EXCESSLY
The document was adopted by 222 votes to eight, with three abstentions. It demanded two-thirds of the members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Virginia, Arlington, told reporters on Tuesday that the document was never intended to “target any individual or group of individuals.”
The document seems vaguely reprimanding pro-abortion politicians when it states: “Lay people who exercise some form of public power have a special responsibility to form their conscience in accordance with the faith and moral law of the Church and to serve the human family by nurturing human life and dignity.”
It avoids giving the bishops an explicit command to refuse the sacrament from Catholics who say they oppose the teachings of the church. It says, “The special responsibility of the bishop of the diocese is to work to remedy situations involving public action in violation of the visible connection and moral law of the church.”
Biden, who regularly attends Mass, met privately with Pope Francis at the Vatican last month and said afterwards that the Pope had told him he was a “good Catholic” who could take supper.
Prior to this meeting, Pope Francis, whose liberal theology has confused many conservative Catholics since his appeal in 2013, seemed to criticize U.S. bishops for treating the matter politically rather than pastorally. The pope said bishops should use “compassion and affection” with Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion rights.
Reported by Gabriella Borter Editing: Colleen Jenkins, Alistair Bell and Aurora Ellis
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