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U.S. Catholic Bishops votes on issues — like whether Biden should take communion

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden's Roman Catholic faith and his support for abortion rights have put him at odds with some leaders of his church. Today, U.S. Catholic bishops had an opportunity to formally tell priests that they should deny communion to abortion-rights supporters, but they stopped short of doing that.

NPR's Sarah McCammon has been covering this week's meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and she joins us now from Baltimore. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you just explain - what exactly did the bishops do today, then?

MCCAMMON: The U.S. bishops have been working on this issue for months, and they've been discussing exactly what they should say as a collective group about who is and isn't eligible for communion. So today, the bishops approved a document that essentially reiterates Catholic teachings, but it also puts a somewhat finer point on some of them. Now, this has been a longstanding issue of debate in the Catholic Church, but it's intensified with the election of President Joe Biden.

CHANG: Right. And as we mentioned, the bishops stopped short of rebuking Biden. So what are they saying in this document exactly?

MCCAMMON: Yeah. They don't single anyone out, but they do say, quote, "laypeople who exercise some form of public authority have a special responsibility to embody church teaching." And on this question of who can take communion, the document reminds Catholics not to present themselves for the Eucharist, not to come and take it, if they are in a state of what's known as grave sin.

It lists abortion among several issues of great moral concern to the church; among them genocide, slavery and exploitative working conditions. And Catholics are called on to protect, quote, "the unborn," along with immigrants, victims of racial injustice and the sick and the elderly. Finally, this document calls on bishops to, quote, "work to remedy situations" where Catholics are presenting themselves for communion while publicly opposing moral teachings of the church, but it doesn't spell out exactly how bishops should do that.

CHANG: Ah, interesting. Well, I'm curious - what was the debate like? Did you watch it?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, I was there in the room. And first of all, we should say this document passed overwhelmingly with 222 yes votes and just a handful of noes and abstentions. But there are bishops who would have liked to go farther than this and to have been more explicit in their public statements. But this document appears to have been written in an effort to garner broad support from the U.S. bishops.

One of them, though, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., stood up today. He was wearing a mask that said, remember the unborn. And he said he supports this document, but he wants bishops to take a stronger tone on abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH NAUMANN: If the Catholics in the Congress and the - members of the Congress, if the Catholics supported the church's teaching, we would have bipartisan supermajorities. And so I think it's important that each of us take to heart this and have these dialogues with people in public life.

CHANG: Well, what has Pope Francis said about all this so far?

MCCAMMON: Well, for one thing, the Vatican has warned against politicizing the issue. A Vatican envoy, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, was here and addressed the bishops yesterday. He called for protecting human life, as he put it, but also cautioned against thinking of communion as something that should only be offered to, quote, "the privileged few."

Pope Francis has said that he's never denied communion to anyone, although he's also said he's never known that someone was ineligible when they presented themselves. And the pope met recently with President Biden during his visit to Rome, and by all accounts, they had a very positive and lengthy meeting.

CHANG: OK. So clearly a lot of different viewpoints within the church about this, but what will this document mean for Catholics who aren't politicians or public officials and their priests?

MCCAMMON: Well, it's broadly written, so it may be open to interpretation, which is essentially the case now. So it will likely vary from Bishop to Bishop, but it could give conservative bishops something to point to if they decide to advise priests to deny communion to certain public officials or activists, something that polling suggests most Catholics don't want them to do.

CHANG: That is NPR's Sarah McCammon, reporting from Baltimore. Thank you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.