Shortly before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced the bishops had approved moving forward in drafting a teaching document on the Eucharist, a group of Catholic Democratic members of the House of Representatives asked the bishops not to deny holy Communion to anyone over the issue of abortion.
Saying they were guided by "the living Catholic tradition" that promotes the common good, expresses a consistent moral framework and calls for protecting vulnerable lives, 59 legislators said in a "Statement of Principles" released June 18 that they were concerned about the Eucharist being denied to Democratic members of Congress over a single issue: abortion.
"We believe the separation of church and state allows for our faith to inform our public duties and best serve our constituents," the statement said. "The sacrament of holy Communion is central to the life of practicing Catholics and the weaponization of the Eucharist to Democratic lawmakers for their support of a women's safe and legal access to abortion is contradictory."
The bishops approved 168-55, with six abstentions, the drafting of a document to examine the "meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the church" following a lengthy debate during their virtual spring general assembly June 16-18.
The bishops' Committee on Doctrine, chaired by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, will draft the document. It is expected to be completed in time for the bishops' fall general assembly in November, which will be in person.
Backers of such a document said they believe it is needed given the results of a 2019 survey that found declining belief among American Catholics about the Real Presence in the Eucharist. They also expressed concern that the long absences from regular Mass attendance because of the coronavirus pandemic may have led people to place less significance in receiving Communion, a central tenant of the faith.
One of the three parts proposed in the document would examine "eucharistic consistency" in eligibility to receive Communion. That section has drawn the most challenges from bishops opposed to the document's drafting who said it would unnecessarily threaten churchwide unity in the U.S. church as well as with the Vatican.
In arguing for the measure, several bishops specifically cited the public stances of support for keeping abortion legal by Catholic political leaders, particularly President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Democrats for Life of America told Catholic News Service June 21 the organization believes all elected officials should be held accountable for supporting any action that harms life including abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty.
"That includes Joe Biden and his support for abortion, Mike Pence and (Donald) Trump for support of the death penalty at the end of the (previous) administration," said Dan Green, national communications director for DFLA.
Citing comments from the Catholic Democratic officials who say they are personally opposed to abortion but cannot impose their views on the country, Green instead urged the 59 signers to "be consistent" with Catholic teaching and oppose legislative efforts to repeal the Hyde Amendment.
The amendment prohibits federal tax dollars from directly funding abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman would be endangered.
At the same time, Green added, Democrats for Life of America has no opinion on the bishops' decision to draft a Communion document.
"Since we are secular organization we don’t necessarily get into theology of religious institutions," he said.
The Catholic Democrats' statement explained that no elected officials "have been threatened with being denied the Eucharist" for supporting policies contrary to church teaching including denial of rights to immigrants, separating migrant children from parents, limiting food and social services to poor people and the death penalty.
They urged the bishops to "not move forward and deny this most holy of all sacraments, the source and the summit of the whole work of the gospel over one issue."
"To pursue a blanket denial of the holy Eucharist to certain elected officials would indeed grieve the Holy Spirit and deny the evolution of that individual, a Christian person who is never perfect, but living in the struggle to get there," the Democrats said.
The House representatives also said that while they see the church's guidance in their work, they "believe also in the primacy of conscience." They based their premises on the words of Pope Francis in "The Joy of the Gospel," the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on Sacred Liturgy and St. John Paul II's apostolic exhortation "Christifideles Laici" on the role of the laity.
Among Democrats signing the statement were Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Fifty-four of the 59 Democratic signers have received a 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America since 2018 on the organization's legislative priorities, which have primarily included reproductive health and abortion, but also a handful of other legislative issues. The remaining five legislators joined Congress in January and their ratings were not available.