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Last week, an overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholic bishops voted to draft new guidance on who should be allowed to take communion in what was widely seen as a move by conservative church leaders to sanction President Joe Biden over his support for abortion rights.

The decision by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops reflects a growing divide among North American Catholics. Even as the proportion of Catholics regularly attending mass continues to decline, bishops in Canada and the U.S. have pushed back against Pope Francis’s de-emphasis of core doctrine in favour of social justice issues. The move by the USCCB amounts, hence, to a snub of the Pope and Mr. Biden, who is only the second Catholic to sit in the White House.

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said in a statement after 73 per cent of bishops attending its Spring Plenary Assembly voted to provide new guidance on whether to deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians such as Mr. Biden.

“The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

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Bishops who opposed the move accused the U.S. church hierarchy of politicizing the Eucharist, which, according to Catholic teaching, is literally the body of Christ. In February, as members of the USCCB began debating sanctioning Mr. Biden, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy warned against a “weaponization of the Eucharist” at a time of deep political polarization. “It would be very destructive,” he told an online forum. “It would also cast the (USCCB) more significantly into the role of being partisan, as being associated with one party rather than the other.”

That so few of his colleagues heeded his warning reflects a desire of the majority of U.S. bishops to reassert core tenets of the Catholic faith in defiance of what they see as Francis’s mushiness. While the current Pope has not reversed the church’s opposition to abortion or gay marriage, he has spurned the dogmatic rhetoric of his immediate predecessors and chosen to concentrate his papacy on issues such as poverty, climate change and inequality.

Earlier this year, bishops in the U.S. and Canada were also at odds with Rome in taking a harder line against COVID-19 vaccines that had relied on abortion-derived cell lines in their development. Following the lead of the USCCB, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops urged Catholics to choose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines over ones produced by AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson. The CCCB subsequently softened its stance in the face of a media uproar.

Like its U.S. counterpart, the CCCB has grown more conservative in recent years. In the early 1980s, when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister, the organization was seen as a social justice warrior. In 1983, on the heels of a recession, the CCCB’s Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs issued a scathing report calling for economic policies “which realize that needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich; that the rights of workers are more important than the maximization of profits; that the participation of marginalized groups has precedence over the preservation of a system which excludes them.”

Now, the CCCB steers clear of such issues, as it focuses its efforts on opposing medical aid in dying and legislation banning conversion therapies.

Already facing criticism for the church’s refusal to apologize for abuses committed by clergy at Indigenous residential schools, it remains unclear whether the CCCB would risk more public controversy now by following its U.S. counterpart in issuing new guidance on communion, a move that would be seen as sanctioning Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his pro-choice policies. But that may not stop individual bishops from doing so.

Mr. Trudeau has regularly evoked his own Catholic faith, most recently when he called on church officials to stop stalling on requests for documents that could shed light on the fate of thousands of Indigenous children who went missing or died while attending residential schools.

The possibility of denying Mr. Trudeau communion was raised by some bishops in 2014 when he announced that Liberal candidates in the 2015 election would be required to toe the party’s pro-choice line on abortion. The Prime Minister further antagonized church leaders in 2018 when his government required organizations applying for summer-jobs grants to attest that they adhered to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including its application to reproductive rights.

Members of the USCCB are to vote on the new eucharistic guidance document in November. Needless to say, their Canadian counterparts will be watching closely.

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