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Bishops Debate Whether Politicians Who Support Abortion Should Receive Communion

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When President Biden spends the weekend here in Washington, he often attends mass at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown. And when he's there, Biden participates in a central part of the service - the Eucharist. But there is tension surrounding the sacrament for the most prominent Roman Catholic politician in the U.S. Some bishops, some priests believe that because Biden supports abortion rights, he shouldn't be allowed to receive Holy Communion. And now, some American bishops are moving to make that a policy not only for the president, but for other Catholic politicians who also support abortion rights. Well, we're going to talk through this with Reverend Stan Chu Ilo. He's a priest and an associate professor in Catholic studies at DePaul University in Chicago, and he opposes this policy.

Welcome.

STAN CHU ILO: Thank you.

KELLY: So I want to start with today's news. The Vatican weighed in on this with a warning to the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. What did they say?

ILO: The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which regulates Catholic doctrine, beliefs and practices globally, came up with - I mean, I would say policy and advice, that what is needed today is dialogue with Catholic pro-choice politicians. So what the Vatican is saying is that they should not rush into making sanctions and weaponizing the sacraments, but rather they should seek for dialogue (ph).

KELLY: OK. So the Vatican weighing in, saying slow down (laughter), take your time with this. How does that square or not with what the pope himself, what Pope Francis has said?

ILO: The pope - you remember the famous expression of the pope many years ago. He said, who am I to judge? The pope is telling us that Holy Communion is not a trophy that you grant to a champion. The pope is reminding us that we shouldn't weaponize the sacrament. It's not the role of the bishop to make draconian laws, but rather to inform the conscience, to teach people and then to allow their teaching to form the hearts and minds of people in their dialogue.

KELLY: So let me jump in and try to figure out how this might play out. We know the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has scheduled a meeting. We know it's next month, June 16. They have plans to vote on a document about this. What way do you expect that to go?

ILO: I will expect that given the polarization, unfortunately, within the ranks of the bishops, given also this cautionary note from the Vatican, that the bishops will not proceed in coming up with that kind of policy, which I think given the fact that we are in the midst of a pandemic, why should people just suddenly think that this is the most central issue to address? And then...

KELLY: Well, I was going to ask is, is this issue front of mind for American Catholics? Is this the priority in a lot of churches?

ILO: I think that what most Catholics are worried about and I think most other Christians and other people of faith is that for the last one year, they have not been able to go to church and experience community. I think people are worried that many people are still dying and suffering from COVID-19. And most importantly, I must say this as a Catholic priest, it worries me that when we talk of abortion, we're only hearing the voices of an all-male hierarchy, all-male leadership. We are not talking about the experience of the women who have suffered from abortion, who had to make that choice, who is still carrying the burden of the choice. I'd like to hear more of the voices of women about this issue.

KELLY: One more question, which is just the very basic one. Whatever the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decides next month, is it binding or do individual churches have some leeway? Because we should stress it would be very rare to turn someone away from communion, right?

ILO: Yes, definitely. You know, the law the Catholic Church is that it is the local bishop who regulates the practice and the administration of the sacraments in his particular church. So in this case, the cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Wilton Gregory, has already made it clear that Biden is welcome to receive communion at churches in the diocese.

KELLY: That is the Reverend Stan Chu Ilo. He is a priest and an associate professor in Catholic Studies at DePaul University in Chicago.

Thank you for being here.

ILO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.