Catholic bishops’ effort to deny Biden communion risks alienating church members, a majority of whom support abortion rights

An image of the interior of a colorful, elaborate cathedral beside a close-up image of President Joe Biden.
Some Catholic bishops have expressed interest in denying President Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic, Communion over his abortion stance. Matthew Pasant, Contributor/Getty Images; Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
  • Some US Catholic bishops expressed interest in denying Biden communion over his abortion stance.
  • But polls show a majority of Catholics share Biden’s view in support of abortion rights.
  • The bishops could push Catholics further away at a time when church membership is already declining.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The faith of the US’s second-ever Catholic president became the subject of heated debate last month.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops gave the go-ahead on the drafting of a document that could bar President Joe Biden from receiving communion, because of his stance on abortion.

Biden, one of the most religiously observant presidents in recent decades, has been denied communion before, in 2019 at a church in South Carolina. The priest told the Florence Morning News at the time that he denied Biden communion because “any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.”

But that pro-abortion stance would also include a majority of US Catholics.

A 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center found 56% of Catholic respondents said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. In fact, many US Catholics’ views on abortion are similar to Biden’s, according to Dr. Patrick Whelan, a doctor and professor at the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California.

“The vast majority of Catholics are pro-life and pro-choice,” Whelan told Insider. “It’s a moral issue but they don’t think the government should be making that decision.”

Biden has personally expressed reservations about abortion in the past, but now supports a woman’s right to choose. Whelan said conservative bishops’ decision to target Biden places them at odds with church members who hold similar views.

The clash could be particularly harmful to the Catholic church, where mass attendance has been declining for decades and divisions between leadership and members are already prevalent.

A ‘long train of usurpations’

The National Catholic Reporter, a progressive publication, ran a snarky editorial last month in support of the bishops’ plan to deny Biden communion.

“Just do it, so that if there happens to be a Catholic remaining who is not convinced that the bishops’ conference, as it stands today, has become completely irrelevant and ineffectual, they will be crystal clear about that reality after the conference leaders move forward with this patently bad idea,” the editorial said.

Insider spoke with three US Catholics who support abortion rights, all of whom echoed that sentiment.

“I find it horrific that the bishops would abuse their authority in this way,” said Rebecca Houston, who taught at a Catholic high school in Chicago for more than two decades.

She said it was “shocking” that bishops would potentially deny Biden, a “devout” Catholic, the Eucharist over a political matter, but that to her it’s just the latest example of church leadership’s failures.

Houston said she found Catholic support for former President Donald Trump “egregious.” Catholic voters were split in 2020, with 50% voting Trump and 49% voting Biden, according to AP VoteCast. Meanwhile, Catholic leaders in the US, including the same bishops that could deny Biden Communion, have praised Trump, particularly on issues like abortion and religious freedom.

“It was really the culmination of a ‘long train of usurpations,’ to quote the founding fathers,” Houston said, adding that although she believes “the Church is comprised of many different viewpoints” she “cannot just sit with this anymore.”

‘I would support the church more openly if things like that weren’t happening’

A Gallup poll published in 2019 found many others have had their faith in church leadership shaken as well. The percentage of Catholic respondents who rated highly the honesty and ethical standards of clergy fell from 49% to 31% from 2017 to 2018, when more sexual abuse allegations and questions about the church’s response arose.

That percentage was down from 66% in 2004. Gallup said major drops in trust over the years have clearly coincided with church scandals.

Sean, a 28-year-old Catholic from Chicago, told Insider the church’s response to sex abuse scandals particularly affected him.

“The big open secret of how things are behind the scenes has taken the wind out of my sails,” Sean, who asked Insider not to use his real name, said.

Sean went to Catholic school from kindergarten through high school and still considers his faith a big part of his life, but he doesn’t talk about it much.

He said the bishops targeting Biden over abortion is just another factor making him hesitant to support the Church openly. He was opposed to abortion for a long time, but said his change on the issue was probably the biggest one he’s ever had.

“I get where the Church would be hard and firm on that,” he said. “But I can’t justify making somebody else suffer because of my own personal beliefs.”

Still, Sean said if the bishops were to deny communion to Biden, it wouldn’t greatly affect his relationship to his faith, as he already feels disconnected from church leadership. But it would be another factor deterring him from being more vocal about his religion.

“I think I would support the Church more openly if things like that weren’t happening,” he said.

With church membership on the decline it’s a ‘terrible time’ to focus on this

Church membership in the US has been steadily declining for decades, but the Catholic church has seen an especially sharp decline, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. The percentage of self-identifying Catholics who belonged to a specific church fell from 76% around the year 2000 to 58% today.

“This is a terrible time to try and make this a preeminent issue,” Whelan, who wrote an essay criticizing the bishops over the Biden-communion issue, said. “When people have gotten out of the habit of going to church and they risk insulting a majority of Catholics.”

A much better approach, according to Whelan, would be for the bishops to embrace the country’s second Catholic president and his personal concerns with abortion to find ways to actually reduce the number of abortions. He points to the drop in abortions that occurred under former President Barack Obama, when the Affordable Care Act made contraceptives and other reproductive healthcare available to women who couldn’t get it before.

“Biden has moral concerns about this, like most other Catholics,” he said. “Let’s work together to find common-sense solutions.”

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