June 18 (UPI) -- Catholic bishops on Friday voted to develop new guidelines on communion in a possible step toward denying the sacrament to elected officials such as President Joe Biden who support abortion rights.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting virtually for its 2021 Spring General Assembly, voted 168-55 with six abstentions in favor of drafting a document to examine the "meaning of the eucharist in the life of the church."
The vote came following a lengthy and often emotional debate in which some bishops expressed strong reservations about the potential for the new guidelines to politicize the sacrament by denying it to Catholic politicians such as Biden who back abortion rights.
While campaigning for the presidency, Biden proposed a healthcare plan that would expand access to contraception and abortion and restore funding to Planned Parenthood. In addition, the plan sought to prevent states from passing laws to outlaw abortion.
In a prerecorded opening statement, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., chairman of the bishops' doctrine committee, said it was never their intention to "produce national norms for denying Catholics holy communion" but rather "to present a clear understanding as to why the church has these laws."
The proposed guidelines -- part of a larger effort to revive the institution of the eucharist among Catholics -- are also not meant as "a statement about any one individual or about any one category of sinful behavior," he added.
But Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, said there was "significant ambiguity" about the actual intention of the effort.
"We have heard a number of bishops ... indicate, in fact, that it's time that we take a position with regard to these public officials receiving communion. So it's hard to know what direction you're going to go."
San Diego Archbishop Robert McElroy, meanwhile, warned that it will be "impossible to prevent [the eucharist's] weaponization, even if everyone wants to do so" and that it could become "a tool in vicious partisan turmoil."
If the church legitimizes "public policy-based exclusion" from communion, McElroy said, "we'll invite all political animosity into the heart of the Eucharistic celebration."
The vote allows the bishops' doctrine committee to proceed with drafting the document and present it for discussion when the bishops reconvene in person in November.