Ignoring warnings from Pope Francis and the Vatican, US Catholic bishops earlier this month overwhelmingly approved drafting guidance that would deny the rite of communion to public officials who do not support the church’s opposition to abortion. The decision was seen as the church’s most public rebuke yet of US President Joe Biden, only the second Catholic to occupy the White House. A drafting committee will convene to write the guidance and present a draft to the bishops for a formal vote in November.
The sacrament of communion, or Holy Eucharist, lies at the core of the Catholic faith. The communion host, bread, is viewed as the actual body of Jesus upon consecration by the priest during Mass. Receiving it is considered a sign of a believer’s state of grace. Receipt of communion is de rigueur and almost automatic for any Catholic attending Mass. Typically, only non-Catholics and excommunicated Catholics would be formally denied communion, though those who consider themselves not in a state of grace, i.e., guilty of a serious sin, are not supposed to receive it. Abortion, among others, is considered a grievous sin.
Why Is Joe Biden’s Presidency Anathema to So Many US Catholics?
Joe Biden is an observant Roman Catholic, having grown up and been educated in the church. He regularly attends Sunday Mass and even periodic daily services, and receives communion, which has never been denied him previously. He often quotes from the Bible and church hymns in his political remarks and is known to frequently recite the rosary, which he carries with him in his pocket.
Biden has been clear on his position on abortion. While accepting the teachings of the church, he has said that he will not impose his personal view on others and, therefore, supports a woman’s right to choose. It is precisely that position that has riled American bishops, all of whom have begun to view the issue as a litmus test for Catholicism.
Losing Their Hold
In America, the Catholic Church has seen a steady erosion of adherents to its teachings on a host of moral issues, most involving the treatment and role of sex and gender in everyday life, and abortion. American Catholics, like their non-Catholic counterparts, are all over the moral map. While practicing or observant Catholics are more likely to follow church teachings on these matters, even they have shown an independent streak by making decisions in their lives at odds with traditional Catholic dogma.
For example, the church officially opposes the use of artificial contraception, yet 99% of US Catholic women use some form of artificial birth control, according to a recent Guttmacher Institute poll. This compares with 99.6% of women with no religious affiliation, 99.4% of mainline Protestant women, 99.3% of evangelical Protestants and 95.7% with other religious connections. While this is universally known among Catholics, the church leadership nowadays usually — and wisely — avoids the subject. Moreover, there is no movement to deny communion to either these women or those who support their right to choose contraception.
The church sees its authority eroding elsewhere as well. Surveys suggest that Catholics favor allowing to divorce and remarry, and divorced Catholics who remarry to receive communion. Since 2011, a majority of Catholics have supported gay marriage, up to 69% today. Sixty percent support the ordination of women, and 62% think that priests should be able to marry.
On the controversial subject of abortion, a clear majority (56%) of Catholics support its legalization. The figure may be deceptive, however. Among Catholics who attend Mass regularly, opposition to abortion is significantly higher. Nevertheless, two-thirds of Catholics oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case in which the US Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
On the specific issue before the American bishops, 67% of Catholics oppose denying communion to Biden for his views on abortion. Worth noting, however, is that among Catholics who identify as Democrat or Democrat-leaning, 87% oppose such a ruling, while only 44% who identify as Republican or Republican-leaning do so.
All of this lends weight to the call among a growing majority of American Catholics for changes in their church’s policies and teachings. Yet the Catholic Church is anything but a democracy. So, Catholics are voting not only with their feet but also their dollars, either leaving the church or simply refusing to support it with their contributions. Those who strongly identify as Catholic have declined from 46% in 1974 to just 27% in 2017. Regular Sunday Mass attendance among Catholics has also fallen, from nearly 50% in 1974 to about 25% in 2012.
These numbers tell some but not all of the story behind the church’s decline in the US. From 1970 to 2020, the number of priests in the US fell by 40%, not surprising given that vocations draw heavily from the church’s school system, which has also suffered declining numbers. Catholic schools are closing across the country, with almost 50% fewer elementary schools and 40% fewer secondary schools in 2020 than in 1970. Catholic parishes, which typically support Catholic schools, have fallen by 15% since 1990.
With declining membership and Mass attendance have come decreasing church collections. Also, Catholics see withholding contributions as the only way to voice their opposition to church policies. The child sex abuse scandal that has wracked the church for the last 20 years has also provoked considerable outrage among Catholics of all political persuasions, especially as diocese after diocese pays tens of millions in legal settlements of child abuse cases nationwide, dating back to the 1950s. Many believe the church has yet to provide a full accounting of the priests’ behavior and of the senior clerics who tolerated it.
It is this independent thought and attendant behavior that has conservative Catholic bishops worried. They fear the steady decline of Catholicism in America into the same fate as Protestantism, a cafeteria-style buffet of moral and theological offerings and teachings from which members may pick and choose. For an organization accustomed to obedience and acceptance, it is tantamount to a revolution. They have chosen to confront that revolution on the abortion battlefront.
Train Wreck or Track Change?
Though he may not have sought the position, Joe Biden represents the growing numbers of American Catholics — and most definitely Americans in general — who wish to define a defensible middle ground on abortion, a chronically neuralgically contentious issue in the US. The conservative Catholic bishops will have none of it, rather drawing a clear line brooking no viable middle ground.
In doing so, they’ve formally submitted the church to America’s culture wars that infect so many segments of polity and society. Even more importantly for the church, these bishops threaten to divide the US institution. On one track, there is the conservative movement, a compliant core that is faithful to all the church’s teachings and dogma, intolerant of any deviation, whether on abortion, married priests, contraception, gay marriage, etc. On another track, there is a more liberal version of the church, focusing on its historic mission of social justice, immigration, climate change and poverty elimination but also more tolerant of diverse views on sex and morality.
Pope Francis unquestionably knows this and is trying to avoid what may be inevitable, especially as his American bishops appear so eager for the confrontation and consequent division. Following the bishops’ vote, he issued no comment. The Vatican asserted that he had already spoken on his opposition to the action. Clearly, however, their decision flouted his position and amounts to no less than a direct challenge to the pope and his authority, a rarity in recent church history.
Francis and the Vatican appear to be relying on the ultimate failure of the bishops’ initiative. It would require unanimous approval by the Conference of Bishops or at least two-thirds approval followed by the pope’s consent. The likelihood of either is microscopically slim.
The bishops’ action is more than one of merely trying to force dogmatic adherence to church teachings. It is a barely veiled challenge to this pope whom they’ve viewed as out of step with tradition and steering the church down a dangerous path of diluting the faith. Even if their measure fails, they will have established themselves as an alternative voice of the Catholic faith, thereby condemning Catholics across the country to a church divided between two versions of Jesus’ “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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