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As abortion dominates US politics, Catholic bishops avoid hard rebuke of Biden

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted Wednesday only weeks ahead of a landmark Supreme Court hearing on abortion rights and on a president who is only the second in history to practice their faith.  

BALTIMORE (CN) — U.S. Catholic bishops avoided harsh critique of President Biden and his support of abortion rights Wednesday as they passed a new document on the sacrament of Communion. 

The document — the first of its kind in 15 years — has attracted attention as some in the church criticized Biden for his support of abortion rights for Americans. Some speculated the document could restrict politicians who support abortion from receiving Holy Eucharist, a sacrament celebrated in Catholic mass where a wafer or wine is used to represent the body and blood of Christ.

As seen in a draft version of the Communion document, however, the word abortion appears only once and there is no mention either of Biden or any other politician.

The document shies away from strict guidance, instead suggesting that those who reject the faith’s doctrines should abstain from receiving Holy Eucharist.

“If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain,” the draft document states. 

The document also says those with public authority have a responsibility to protect human life: “Lay people who exercise some form of public authority have a special responsibility to form their consciences in accord with the Church’s faith and the moral law, and to serve the human family by upholding human life and dignity.” 

With 222 in favor, eight opposed and three abstaining, the bishops overwhelmingly voted in favor of the document’s passage at an in-person meeting of their conference in Baltimore.

Pope Francis has not officially weighed in on refusing Communion to politicians who support abortion, but he met privately with Biden last month. 

“We just talked about the fact he was happy that I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving Communion,” Biden said of his meeting with the Pope. 

Screenshot shows members gathered at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, Maryland, on Nov. 17, 2021, to pass new Communion guidance.

Wednesday's vote from the bishops is just a flashpoint over abortion rights as nation awaits Supreme Court arguments on Dec. 1 in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a challenge of a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The court’s precedents in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey protect the right to abortion until viability. Texas currently has the strictest abortion restrictions in the country — an effective ban against the practice that is focused on fetal heartbeat, which can can be detected at just six weeks. At a recent hearing, the Supreme Court signaled it would overturn the Texas law based on the narrow issue of how it is enforced.

A new poll from the Washington Post and ABC found that 60% of Americans think Roe should be upheld while only 27% wanted to see it overturned. 

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