By PETER SMITH
BALTIMORE (AP) — U.S. Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved a long-anticipated document on Communion on Wednesday that stops short of calling for withholding the sacrament from politicians such as President Joe Biden who support abortion rights but offers plenty of tacit justification for individual bishops to do so.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ first major statement on Communion in 15 years, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” does not explicitly address the debate over elected officials, abortion and the sacrament that has surrounded the document over the past several months and partly inspired its creation in the first place.
Instead, it gives an overview of church teaching, emphasizing the centrality of the Eucharist in the faith and worship and in part reflecting concern among bishops that many Catholics don’t know or accept such teachings.
It was approved by a 222-8 vote at the conference’s fall assembly in Maryland after receiving only minor revisions in recent days by drafters on the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine.
Drafters added a reference to defending “the unborn” along with other vulnerable persons, such as immigrants, older adults and victims of racial injustice. They also bolstered the definition of “scandal” as weakening the resolve of other Catholics to follow church teachings.
The latter revision came in a passage reaffirming a 2006 statement saying it’s a scandal if a Catholic “in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly or obstinately to reject” the church’s doctrines or moral teachings.
The document does not identify Biden or other politicians by name, though it says at one point, “Lay people who exercise some form of public authority have a special responsibility to embody Church teaching.”
It calls on Catholics to examine their conscience and make sure they’re in harmony with church teachings, and says bishops have a “special responsibility” to respond to situations “that involve public actions at variance with the visible communion of the church and the moral law.”
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, who chairs the Committee on Pro-Life Activities and whose work includes advocacy against abortion, took the document as affirming the importance of “our responsibility for the care of the souls of these politicians.”
Naumann called for bishops to find common ground where politicians agree with the church’s vision for “the dignity of the human person,” but also “not to be afraid to fulfill our obligations to let them know how serious” it is to dissent from church teaching.
Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, an outspoken critic of the president, asked colleagues to amend the document by quoting the church catechism and the Bible as saying anyone who creates scandal would be better off having a “millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in … the sea.”
The proposal was met with silence when put to a voice vote and was not adopted.
The conference cannot dictate a blanket policy on denying Communion to politicians; each bishop has authority in his own diocese.
While some bishops have said they would deny the sacrament to Biden, the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, has affirmed that the president is welcome to receive the sacrament there. Biden has said that Pope Francis, too, told him in a recent private meeting to continue receiving Communion.
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