By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) - U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops this week are expected to revisit whether President Joe Biden's support for abortion rights should disqualify him from receiving communion, an issue that has deepened rifts in the church since the Democrat took office.
At a Nov. 15-18 conference in Baltimore, the bishops are scheduled to vote on a document clarifying the meaning of Holy Communion, a sacrament central to the faith. A committee drafted the document after the bishops' June conference, where they debated whether to take a position on the eligibility of prominent Catholics such as Biden - whose political actions they say contradict church teaching - to receive communion.
Biden, the first Catholic president since John F. Kennedy, has said he personally opposes abortion but supports a woman's right to choose. He has vowed to protect abortion rights in the face of increasingly restrictive laws enacted by states; last month, his administration called on the Supreme Court to block a Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks.
The issue has divided the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and pitted more conservative Catholics against those who support the president's views. Some 55% of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 59% of the general population, according to a Pew Research survey conducted in April.
The debate has sown further discord as the church struggles to retain a fractured membership. Nearly 20% of U.S. Catholics have left the church in the past two decades, according to a Gallup poll in March, as sexual abuse scandals involving predatory priests have emerged and members have increasingly disagreed on social issues.
Biden met privately with Pope Francis at the Vatican last month and said afterward that the pope had told him he was a "good Catholic" who can receive communion.
Prior to that meeting, Pope Francis, whose liberal theology has ruffled many conservative Catholics since his election in 2013, appeared to criticize U.S. bishops for dealing with the issue in a political rather than a pastoral way.
"Communion is not a prize for the perfect. ... Communion is a gift, the presence of Jesus and his Church," the pope said, adding that bishops should use "compassion and tenderness" with Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
At a virtual meeting in June, the bishops resolved to draft a document on the meaning of communion and debated how explicitly it should define who is eligible to receive the sacrament. During the debate, some conservative bishops argued that the conference had a duty to rebuke politicians such as Biden who they accuse of violating church teachings, and they called for a stricter standard for eligibility. Others cautioned against making the Eucharist a political weapon.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades, chairman of the conference's Committee on Doctrine, described the upcoming document at a roundtable discussion in September, saying it would remind Catholics of the importance of the sacrament. He did not say whether it would state who should be considered worthy of receiving communion.
A draft of the document, published earlier this month by the Catholic newsletter The Pillar, does not mention Biden or any politician by name, but states that "people who exercise some form of public authority have a special responsibility to embody the church." It says Catholics who live in a state of "mortal sin" without repentance should not receive communion, but does not say who should sit in judgment.
In 2004, the conference published a statement that said individual bishops could decide whether to deny communion to Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights.
A spokeswoman for the conference declined to comment on whether the draft published by The Pillar was the same one the bishops were scheduled to discuss and possibly amend this week.
John Carr, co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, said the draft published in The Pillar succeeds at delivering a broader message about the Eucharist to all Catholics, without attacking Biden or other politicians.
If the bishops vote to approve that language, "I think the people who campaigned to deny communion to the president will be very disappointed," said Carr.
"Others will be relieved that they found a way to move beyond this division and diversion."
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Daniel Wallis)