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Bishops Debate Whether Politicians Who Support Abortion Rights Can Receive Communion


One of the most intimate moments of Catholic worship is communion. The election of Joe Biden, only the second practicing Catholic president in U.S. history, has revived the controversy over whether politicians who support abortion rights should be permitted to take part in that sacred right. Today, after much debate at their annual gathering, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops moved one step closer to saying no, and they've pledged to draft a statement to that effect. Joining us to walk through the background of this controversial vote, Reverend James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America magazine. Welcome back to the program.

JAMES MARTIN: Thank you.

CORNISH: Give us a sense of the arguments that led to this vote.

MARTIN: Well, the arguments are pretty straightforward, which is if you don't adhere to Catholic teaching, you are not in communion with the church, and so therefore, since President Biden, you know, supports abortion, he shouldn't receive communion. But, you know, on the other side is the argument that there are many issues beyond just abortion, you know, that would put someone outside of communion with the church. And so I think the focus, which is clearly on abortion, is really disturbing to a lot of people.

CORNISH: There were reports that the head of the Vatican's doctrine-making arm warned that creating a policy like this on Catholic politicians could be divisive. What more do we know about what the Vatican thinks of this?

MARTIN: Well, the letter was released. And so Cardinal Ladaria, who is the prefect, said that, you know, as you were saying, that it could lead to disunity not only in the bishops conference, but among the faithful. And other bishops - for example, Bishop Robert McElroy in San Diego - you know, warned against the weaponization of the Eucharist. And it really - it's the most sacred moment. And unfortunately, some of the bishops, you know, mentioned President Biden and Speaker Pelosi. And, you know, it was very hard for people not to see that this is at least motivated by some political considerations, which is really disturbing for a lot of Catholics.

CORNISH: Has the pope spoken about any of this?

MARTIN: The pope was very clear in many times. He has a document called "Evangelii Gaudium" where he says the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect. It is nourishment, you know, for the sick and for those who need it. And he - I think about a week ago, he even talked about the Eucharist not being, you know, for the perfect. You know, every Catholic before he or she goes to communion says, Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. No one is worthy. And again, to focus on one particular or even a few issues really seems, to people, out of whack with what is supposed to be the sacrament of unity.

CORNISH: The Pew Research Center finds that 67% of American Catholics say that Joe Biden should be allowed to receive communion during mass. So who are the bishops representing?

MARTIN: Well, that's a good point. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a sense, has no real authority over the local bishops. So, for example, President Biden is in the archdiocese of Washington. That would be Cardinal Gregory. And Cardinal Gregory has already said he is not going to deny him communion. That's a paraphrase. So the bishop's conference, you know, is a kind of moral authority. But in the end, you know, it's only the pope that can tell Cardinal Gregory or whatever local bishop there is that so-and-so couldn't receive or shouldn't receive communion.

CORNISH: So what do you think the point is?

MARTIN: Well, the point for, I think, a lot of the bishops is to say that, you know, these are Catholic teachings, and we need to be clear about what Catholic teachings are and what it means to be in communion. But again - you know, and Pope Francis has said this. You know, there are other issues. I mean, for example, will they deny communion to someone who supports the death penalty - I mean, no one has talked about that - or politicians who don't help the poor? There's another document where Pope Francis says equally sacred are other lives, you know, the lives of the poor, those already born, as Pope Francis said. And so they're - you know, I think - you know, I'm pro-life, but pro-life means more than just abortion.

CORNISH: That's Reverend James Martin, Jesuit priest and editor-at-large for America magazine. Thank you for sharing with us.

MARTIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.