US Roman Catholic bishops issued a challenge Friday to President Joe Biden over his support for abortion rights, agreeing to draft a statement on the meaning of holy communion which could potentially be used to deny the sacred rite to the American leader.
Biden, 78, a devout Catholic who attends mass at least once a week, supports the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court decision affirming a woman's right to an abortion.
Catholic bishops, defying appeals from the Vatican, voted at their spring general assembly to draft a formal statement on the "meaning of the eucharist in the life of the Church."
It was approved by a vote of 168 to 55 with six abstentions and the statement will be discussed at their next meeting in November.
Biden on Friday seemed to dismiss the possibility that he could be denied communion.
"That's a private matter and I don't think that's going to happen," he told reporters during a White House event on the coronavirus pandemic.
The eucharist, also known as holy communion, is among the most sacred rituals in the Catholic Church and there have been calls from some conservative church leaders to deny the sacrament to politicians who support abortion rights.
At a press conference on Thursday, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, said the committee drafting the statement "will be looking at that whole issue of eucharistic consistency."
"That is not the task of our committee, to look at individuals," Rhoades said.
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, said the planned statement "is about what we believe about the eucharist, how to live a eucharistic life, and to go forth in service.
"We do not cut off any person from the church," Burbidge said.
It is up to each local bishop to decide who receives communion in their diocese.
In 2019, a priest at a Catholic church in South Carolina refused holy communion to Biden because of his stance on abortion.
The Catholic News Service reported in May that the Vatican had warned US bishops to proceed cautiously with policies designed "to address the situation of Catholics in public office who support legislation allowing abortion, euthanasia or other moral evils."
Abortion is a hot-button issue in the United States, and the brewing stand-off is playing out as the Supreme Court is preparing to hear a case that could pose a challenge to the landmark Roe v Wade ruling legalizing abortion.
The case, involving a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, will be the first abortion case considered by the nation's highest court since former president Donald Trump cemented a 6-to-3 conservative majority on the panel with the appointment of three justices.
Biden's position on abortion was cited by many evangelical Christians in explaining their support for the anti-abortion Trump in the November presidential election, despite numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and other scandals against the thrice-married real estate developer.