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Catholic Bishops Consider Whether Pro-Choice Politicians Should Be Denied Communion

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Starting Wednesday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will gather virtually for their spring meeting. One of the most controversial issues on the agenda involves the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Some bishops want to deny communion to public officials who take positions at odds with the church's teachings on issues like abortion. That could include President Biden, the nation's second Roman Catholic president. Father Charles Fox of Detroit's Sacred Heart major seminary, argues that the issue is not about targeting one person or politician. He says the move is not intended to punish someone for committing a, quote, "one-time sin."

CHARLES FOX: This is an issue where many politicians, even Catholic politicians, are extremely clear in their support of abortion. So it's not as if there's a debate about the extent to which they support abortion. It's known and admitted that they do support abortion, that they support it strongly, that they have supported it for a long time.

MCCAMMON: Fox says that the Catholic Church is deeply concerned with every issue that pertains to the dignity of human life.

FOX: But the right to life is the most basic, the most essential of those issues. And so focusing on those issues with special intensity is only logical.

MCCAMMON: Jamie Manson is the president of Catholics for Choice, which supports abortion rights. She believes the move could have other consequences.

JAMIE MANSON: And I think for Catholics, this is going to look punitive and like overreach. The vast majority of Catholics across party lines do not believe that communion should be weaponized as an instrument of punishment. And so I think that they will only alienate themselves further from laypeople in their own church.

MCCAMMON: There's been an ongoing debate about communion and politicians. Most notably, John Kerry, a Catholic, was denied the Eucharist by the Archbishop of St. Louis during the 2004 presidential campaign. Biden was refused communion in 2008 in Pennsylvania and again in 2019 in South Carolina over his support for abortion rights. Yet he's been granted communion by other church leaders, including the archbishop of Washington, D.C. The vote this week is just one part of the process. Ultimately, the Vatican would need to sign off. I spoke with Heidi Schlumpf, the executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter, to find out more.

What is the argument that these bishops who are calling for potentially denying communion to people like President Biden - what is their argument?

HEIDI SCHLUMPF: So they're saying that we really need to bring attention to the Eucharist. And the problem, they think, is that people don't understand that you're - you know, the rules about people who are in a state of sin not receiving. Now, the problem is that they discussed this once before and came to what was back then a perfectly agreeable decision, which is that the local bishop should handle any politician who has this issue. It was only when it looked like Biden might win that you started hearing from some of these bishops about the need to revisit this issue. And I think it's fairly clear that even though they're couching it in more general language, that this is aimed at Joe Biden.

MCCAMMON: And can you help us understand why this debate centers around the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, in particular? I mean, why is that sacrament so special? And the question of who is eligible to receive it - why does it center around that particular part of participation in Catholic life as opposed to, say, something else?

SCHLUMPF: Certainly, it is a very essential part of our faith and something that people who regularly practice their faith would do. So every Sunday, you would go to church and on holy days of obligation and receive communion. And one thing we've seen about Joe Biden is that he's a regular churchgoer. So he goes every Sunday, and he even goes on those days - holy days of obligation that not all Catholics - was attend church anymore.

MCCAMMON: Now, this debate has come up before, right? I'm thinking of 2004 when Catholic John Kerry was the presidential nominee. How have the bishops handled it in the past, and how they handled it since?

SCHLUMPF: Right. So at the time, what they said is that if somebody obstinately repudiates definitive teaching, they should refrain from receiving the Eucharist. So that's a decision that someone would make in their own conscience and something they would do personally, the politician. Now they want to move forward and say something stronger than that or update this teaching to say something different because we now do have a Catholic president. I think the document that they had from after 2004 seemed to have been working. It left the decision to the local bishop. And what we know about Joe Biden is that the local bishop for him while he's living in Washington, D.C., is Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who has publicly said that he will not deny communion to Joe Biden. He will instead work with him and try to get him to. Move on this issue and Joe Biden's previous bishop in Delaware also said the same thing. And there's a new bishop in Delaware right now who has kind of dodged the issue but said he was open to talking to Biden, while at the same time, he would uphold church teaching.

MCCAMMON: If the American church does move in this direction, how would this work in practice? I mean, what does a ban on communion look like at a local church?

SCHLUMPF: Usually, it comes in the form of a public pronouncement. It's not like the bishop would be standing at the front of the communion line and escorting somebody out the door. But it does raise concerns about if this happens, what is the next step? What other sins are going to be considered making someone unworthy to go to communion? And will we have, you know, numbers of people then who maybe think of themselves as unworthy to go to communion?

MCCAMMON: This debate is happening at a time when America is becoming less religious, particularly when Christianity as a whole is on a significant decline in this country. And that includes Catholicism, as I understand it. What do you think this debate means for the U.S. Catholic Church more broadly?

SCHLUMPF: There are so many other issues going on that our bishops and our church teaching could be speaking to - racism, immigration, the environment, just so many things that could be on the agenda at this meeting. We're coming out of a global pandemic. And instead, the bishops are focusing on this. That's sending a message to young people, to progressive Catholics and to the rest of the country about what the Catholic Church is. That's not the Catholic Church I know and that the National Catholic Reporter has been writing about for our 50-some-year history. But that's the message that people are getting. And I think that's very sad.

MCCAMMON: Heidi Schlumpf is executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter. Thanks so much, Heidi, for speaking with us.

SCHLUMPF: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.