The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on June 18, 2021, took a step toward denying Communion to prominent supporters of abortion rights, most notably Joe Biden, the nation’s first pro-choice Catholic president.
Despite the objections of many of their own members, the Vatican, and the majority of the people in the church, the bishops voted 168 to 55, with six abstentions, to create guidelines on the meaning of the Eucharist to bar giving the sacrament to pro-choice politicians.
Holy Communion is the most important ritual in the Catholic Christian faith.
The Catholic president regularly attends Mass. Responding to the bishops’ vote, Biden said: "That’s a private matter and I don’t think that’s gonna happen."
The Vatican has already indicated opposition to the American bishops’ move.
The US clergy is deeply divided on the issue. The Most Rev Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego, warned such a document would lead to the "weaponisation" of the Eucharist (the more formal name name for Holy Communion).
Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, warned most priests would be "puzzled to hear that bishops now want to talk about excluding people at a time when the real challenge before them is welcoming people back to the regular practice of the faith and rebuilding their communities."
Catholics for Choice, an abortion rights group, said it was profoundly saddened by the move.
In a statement, the group’s president, Jamie Manson, said: "In a country and church already riven with tension and division, today the bishops chose to be partisan instead of pastoral, cruel rather than Christ-like."
"To use the Eucharist – the Body of Christ and the central unifying ritual of our church – as a weapon of punishment is a grotesque and reprehensible betrayal of the power of the sacraments," Manson said.
Biden is the second Catholic elected as president, after John F Kennedy.
He would be the first president to be denied Communion by his Church – a remarkable development that emphasises the divisive nature of abortion in US politics and religious life.
Biden isn’t the only politician to support abortion rights who has faced sanction by Catholic clergy, of course.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry drew similar warnings when he ran for president in 2004, and several members of the Kennedy family have been prohibited.
The clergy is on shaky ground, because the Catholic faith teaches that God invested humans with free will and yhe Bible never mentions abortion.