Margaret Eduok does not always feel worthy of the Eucharist when she goes to Catholic Mass on Sunday. Lining up to receive the sacred sacrament, which she knows as the literal body and blood of Christ, she thinks about her sins from the week before, wondering whether she should hang back until she has a chance to go to confession.
But then she reminds herself: “Jesus came for the sinners, not for the righteous.” Communion is his gift, she says — and as long as you are Catholic, it is yours to take.
On Friday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to move forward with early plans to deny the Eucharist to President Biden and other Catholic lawmakers who support abortion rights, greenlighting a document that would allow for the restrictions. The measure will come up for additional debate in the fall, before the bishops move on to a final vote.
Eduok, a 40-year-old in Houston who supports abortion access, said she was furious when she heard the news. She had already started to drift away from the church. Frustrated by stories about sexual harassment within the clergy and other “hypocrisies,” she often chose to pray her rosary and talk to God at home. If the bishops follow through on their plan to deny Communion to Biden, she said, she doubts she’ll ever attend Mass again.
The Eucharist is the cornerstone of Catholic Mass. After receiving their First Holy Communion, typically around age 7 or 8, all Catholics are invited up to the front of the church to receive the sacrament. It’s a momentous ritual for many, representing a moment when churchgoers can become one with Christ.
At a time when Catholic church membership is sharply declining, many Catholics say they have been further disillusioned by the bishops’ attempts to deny Communion to President Biden. Sixty-seven percent of U.S. Catholics — 87 percent of Catholic Democrats and 44 percent of Catholic Republicans — believe Catholic lawmakers who support abortion rights should be able to receive Communion. Progressive women, especially, feel personally targeted by Friday’s vote, said Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, a religious organization that supports abortion rights. Already alienated by a leadership hierarchy that is all male, many women were left feeling like they may no longer belong in the Catholic church.
Some antiabortion Catholics say they’d be happy to see these people go. People who support abortion rights “cannot be Catholics in good standing,” said Judie Brown, the president of the American Life League, a Catholic antiabortion group. These people should know it’s a “terrible sin” to receive the Eucharist when you support abortion.
“Abortion is murder and the church teaches that. They ought to understand the teaching of the church,” said Brown.
While she is happy that the U.S. bishops have moved to deny Biden the Eucharist, she says she is frustrated that it has taken so long. Catholic law specifically prohibits Catholics in public life who “support intrinsically evil acts” from receiving Communion, she said. By participating fully in a Catholic Mass, Brown added, “Joe Biden is spitting on the body of Christ.”
Conversations around abortion and the Eucharist have been going on for decades, said Manson, but no formal instructions have ever been issued. The tension is escalating now, with a written document, because Biden is the first Catholic president in history who “unequivocally” supports abortion rights, she said. Biden is also a notably devout president, attending Mass every week and regularly referencing his faith in speeches and public statements.
To him, Manson said, the Eucharist clearly means something. The act of denying the Eucharist is “shame creating,” she added: When everyone else stands up, they see you sitting down.
While the focus has been on Catholic lawmakers, Manson said, the document that will be drafted by the bishops could hypothetically be used to deny the Eucharist to any Catholic churchgoer who “makes their position on abortion known.” If the bishop of the diocese sees a congregant posting in support of abortion rights on social media, for example, he could potentially get in touch with that person’s priest and bar them from the Eucharist, Manson said.
This was immediately clear to Alexis Kozak, 30, who was born Catholic and stopped attending Mass regularly in 2016 because of sexual assault allegations in the church. While she is personally against abortion, she said, she doesn’t think it should be illegal. With this latest move, Kozak feels the church is telling her that she doesn’t belong.
“If Biden has these views and he can’t receive Communion, then I shouldn’t receive Communion either,” she said. “It’s like all my years of being Catholic don’t mean anything because I don’t agree on this one issue.”
The recent news has been even more frustrating, Kozak said, because the church has done little to stand up to other politicians who commit injustices, as determined by church doctrine, like supporting the death penalty or trying to keep asylum seekers out of the country.
The Friday vote left Naomi Marie Guzman, 28, deeply skeptical of church leadership. Guzman, who is a practicing Catholic, has been happy to see many of her LGBTQ friends find a spiritual home at her church. In Fresno, Calif., where she lives, “we have gang members in the church,” Guzman said. If the bishops start cherry-picking who can receive Communion, she said, she worries they’ll eventually target any group that diverges from traditional Catholic teaching.
“Who else aren’t you going to accept?” she asked.
Like Kozak, Guzman opposes abortion but feels the procedure should remain accessible to women who want it. Instead of encouraging her to protest outside abortion clinics, her father, a youth minister, encourages the congregation to donate food and other supplies to struggling new mothers. That kind of reaction seems much more in line with Catholic teaching, Guzman said.
“We should respond with charity and love,” Guzman said. “We shouldn’t be damning people.”
This issue will likely be the “last straw” for many Catholics already feeling distant from the church they grew up in, said Manson. The “big hemorrhage” in the Catholic church started in the early 2000s, when the Boston Globe published the first major reporting on sexual abuse in the priesthood, and has continued as the church has remained resistant to change. The hierarchical structure is particularly alienating to young people, Manson said, used to speaking up about the issues they believe in, and having people listen.
Across genders, attendance at religious services of all kinds has been declining — but it’s happening more quickly among women than men.
While the Vatican has made some inroads on elevating women to positions of authority under Pope Francis, there are no female bishops and no female priests, policies unlikely to change anytime soon. It rubs many women the wrong way, Manson said, to have a group of men drafting doctrine related to abortion.
“It’s not only men. It’s men who have no lived experience of women. They don’t have wives, they don’t have daughters. It’s a celibate, radically patriarchal system.”
If the bishops vote to deny Biden the Eucharist, Kozak has decided she will leave the church. She plans to call the church nearby, the one she grew up in, and ask them to remove her name from their rolls. Then she will start looking around for another spiritual home for her and her daughter, age 9.
She has no other choice, she said.
“I don’t want my daughter growing up thinking it’s okay to cast judgment on others.”