Protesters Gather Outside of Catholic Leaders Debate on Controversial Communion Guidelines

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) this week is considering a controversial new "teaching document" about what it means to receive Holy Communion.

The proposed document has generated debate within the Catholic community over the last several months and drew protesters to the conference in Baltimore, Maryland, this week.

The debate surrounding the proposed document has been ongoing since the USCCB voted to draft it during a virtual conference in June. The assembly is expected to vote on the draft Wednesday during its conference, though assembly members are able to submit amendments for consideration through Tuesday evening.

The controversy surrounding the document stems from criticisms directed at President Joe Biden and other left-leaning Catholic politicians for receiving Communion despite supporting abortion rights, a policy position that is at odds with the Catholic Church. Some conservatives have suggested Biden should not receive Communion any longer because of his stance on abortion.

Following a visit with Pope Francis last month at the Vatican, Biden said he had told him he is a "good Catholic" who "should keep receiving Communion." The Vatican has declined to comment on the private conversation between Francis and Biden, according to the Associated Press.

Conference of Catholic Bishops protesters
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is considering this week a controversial "teaching document" about the Eucharist. Above, a handful of demonstrators shout at people attending the 'Bishops Enough Is Enough’ rally at the MECU Pavilion on November 16, 2021, in Baltimore, Maryland. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After the USCCB decided to pursue a new document about Communion, also known as the Eucharist, some Catholic groups raised concerns that the church's leaders in the U.S. would take a stance regarding who can or cannot receive Communion based on their views on abortion. Though considerable attention has been focused on the proposed Eucharist document, the assembly has said its earlier vote in June was not about whether specific individuals should receive Communion and have instead described the project as a "teaching document."

In response to the controversy surrounding the June vote, the assembly published on its website a Q&A section exploring the reasons behind the decision to draft the document. The new document was necessary, the assembly said, to address its "major concern" about "the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist" among members of the community.

The assembly said the document would not provide any national policy regarding blocking politicians from receiving Communion. "The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church's teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us," the USCCB said.

An early draft of the document that leaked ahead of this week's conference did not cite specific politicians but leaned on the assembly's previous stance from 2006 regarding the responsibilities of Catholic individuals, according to the National Catholic Register. The draft included text that said individuals who "reject the defined doctrines of the Church" would in doing so "seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church."

The draft continued: "Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain."

As bishops gathered in Baltimore this week to begin their November conference, protesters on both sides of the issue gathered to encourage the assembly members to either vote for or against the proposed document, which the USCCB's Committee on Doctrine chairman said received more than 100 pages of comments and went through several revisions over the last few months.

One protest held on Monday by liberal Catholics featured signs with messages such as, "Communion is for all," according to the National Catholic Reporter. The Women's Ordination Conference, which advocates for gender equality in the Church and participated in the protest, claimed on Twitter that the proposed document about the Eucharist would serve as a "weapon" that would "divide the faithful." Catholics for Choice suggested the bishops were attempting to "politicize" the Eucharist.

While some protesters were focused specifically on the proposed Eucharist document, the USCCB conference also attracted protesters drawn to the city by Church Militant, a conservative Catholic group. The group organized a "prayer rally" near the USCCB's conference to send a "message" to what event organizers described as "the corrupt bishops' conference." A Church Militant spokesperson told Religion News Service the Tuesday protest was aimed at providing "a venue and voice for 100s of thousands of victims of the bishops' abuse (physical, financial, spiritual, liturgical and doctrinal)."

Church Militant's protest was held in spite of concerns city officials raised about the potential for conflict to brew between protest groups, according to The Baltimore Sun.

The USCCB began the public portion of its Tuesday conference as protesters gathered outside. Chair Mark Sadd of the USCCB's National Advisory Council said 32 of the council's members reviewed the proposed Eucharist document last month ahead of this week's conference. Their responses to the draft comprised of what Sadd described as a "rich patchwork of reflections" who he said were "united in our conviction that the Eucharist cannot be a tool for division."

"The Eucharist cannot be ideological, the Eucharist cannot be partisan, or made into any of these through calculated expression or calculated suppression of our doctrine and belief," Sadd said. Some of the NAC's members expressed uncertainty about the draft's intended audience and suggested it be shortened if it was intended for "the non-practicing Catholic," according to Sadd. Others expressed concern the document would enable an opportunity in which "each group will use it to validate its own position," he added.

Another member whom Sadd did not identify suggested the bishops were "sidestepping their responsibility" with the draft's current contents.

While Sadd noted the NAC's purpose was not to provide the USCCB with a consensus on the proposed document, he said the NAC members were hoping for a document "that is compelling and beautiful to the largest audience."

The bishops attending the conference have until 6 p.m. local time on Tuesday to submit amendments to the current document for consideration. A vote on whether to approve the document will be held on Wednesday.