The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this week are expected to discuss if pro-choice Catholic politicians should be able to receive Holy Communion.
The topic has received renewed attention in the past year because President Joe Biden, the second Roman Catholic to hold that office, attends Mass regularly and receives Holy Communion.
The Vatican has warned the bishops not to deny communion to politicians supportive of abortion rights, according to The New York Times.
In 2004, the bishops published a statement that said local bishops could decide whether to deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. Wilton Cardinal Gregory of the Washington D.C. archdiocese has allowed Biden to receive the host.
This week's virtual conference, for the approximately 280 voting bishops, will include discussion on other issues. The most watched and controversial item on the agenda, however, is the Holy Eucharist.
Bishops are divided over whether the church should call out politicians who promote non-church teachings.
"This is an issue where many politicians, even Catholic politicians, are extremely clear in their support of abortion," Rev. Charles Fox, of the Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary, told National Public Radio.
"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, and supported it for a long time."
Fox said the bishops' focusing on the issue of abortion is "only logical."
"The right to life is the most basic, the most essential of those issues," Fox said. "And so focusing on those issues with special intensity is only logical."
In 2019, the bishops discussed whether to make abortion officially their No. 1 concern, according to The Washington Post.
"We are at a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle to make a real challenge to Roe v. Wade, given the possible changes to the Supreme Court. We should not dilute our efforts to protect the unborn," Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Ore., told his fellow bishops, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
The Post said the bishops overwhelmingly voted to call abortion the "preeminent priority" in a letter attached to its voting guide.
The Vatican's warning represents a rare, open rift between Rome and the American church.
The Times reported "the concern in the Vatican is not to use access to the Eucharist as a political weapon," according to Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Pope Francis.
Although the Catholic Church teaches that abortion is a grave sin and that life begins at conception, there are people who say they belong to the church but disagree with its stance.
Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, said the U.S. Catholic bishops risk further alienating their members if they refuse Communion to pro-choice or pro-abortion politicians.
"I think for Catholics this is going to look punitive and like overreach," Manson said. "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 they will only alienate themselves further from lay people in their church."
Biden was denied Holy Communion in South Carolina in 2019, and Bishop Joseph Francis Martino of the president's hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, said Biden would be denied communion in the Scranton diocese over his support for abortion rights.
In 2014, Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry was denied receiving communion by the archbishop of St. Louis.
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