BALTIMORE >> The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States backed away from a direct conflict with President Joe Biden today, approving a new document on the sacrament of the Eucharist that does not mention the president or any politicians by name.
At issue was the question of which Catholics, under which circumstances, are properly able to receive Communion, one of the most sacred rites within Christianity.
For some conservative Catholics, the real question was more pointed: Should Catholic politicians who publicly support and advance abortion rights be denied the sacrament?
Though the document shied away from explicitly challenging Biden, its very existence highlighted a divide between conservative American bishops and the Vatican, and pitted some of the nation’s most powerful prelates against the country’s Catholic president.
It also illuminated sprawling rifts among ordinary American Catholics, falling along lines that have become familiar since the presidency of Donald Trump scrambled both political and religious loyalties. An emboldened Catholic right wing, including media outlets and activist groups, now feels increasingly free to antagonize Pope Francis and his agenda.
The document, approved overwhelmingly, was the result of a contentious meeting in June, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to draft the guidance after hours of debate.
Though the new guidance does not single out individuals, it does emphasize the obligation of Catholic public figures to demonstrate moral consistency between their personal faith and their public actions. “Lay people who exercise some form of public authority” have a special responsibility to “serve the human family by upholding human life and dignity,” the document states. And it says that bishops have a “special responsibility” to address situations in which there is a gap between public actions and church teaching.
Pope Francis has not officially weighed in, but he maintains a warm relationship with Biden, who is the country’s second Catholic president and attends Mass regularly.
The document approved today does not address the question of public figures’ right to the Eucharist head-on as some had hoped — and others feared. And the 29-page guidance barely mentions the word “abortion.”
Instead, it offers a detailed examination of the theological and spiritual significance of the Eucharist, in which Catholics believe that bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.