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An issue dividing Catholics: Should abortion rights supporters be denied communion?


This week, Catholic bishops will meet for a conference in Baltimore, and they will talk about who should be able to take Communion. Some of them think that politicians - including President Biden - who support abortion rights shouldn't be able to. Now the Vatican might disagree with them, and so might many ordinary Catholics.

Here's NPR's Sarah McCammon.


Renee Ruiz describes herself as a cradle Catholic.

RENEE RUIZ: Born and raised - went through 13 years of Catholic school.

MCCAMMON: Ruiz lives in Bend, Ore., and she says her Catholic faith is one of the reasons she was drawn to her work as a labor organizer. But Ruiz describes herself as pro-choice. And she sees the focus on abortion by some Catholic leaders as misplaced.

RUIZ: And so I've never quite understood that. And I kind of find it hypocritical that they want to make examples out of folks like Joe Biden and other pro-choice Catholic politicians on this one issue.

MCCAMMON: According to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center, Ruiz is among more than half of American Catholics who believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

Father John Paul Kimes of the University of Notre Dame is an expert in canon law, which governs life within the church. He says the church sees abortion as a grave evil. And under canon law, Kimes says, Catholics participating in grave sin should not try to take Communion in the first place.

JOHN PAUL KIMES: That means that I know in this moment that I am not guilty of any grave sin that I have not already confessed. What's at issue now is figuring out what it means to be in grave sin.

MCCAMMON: And how priests and bishops should deal with Catholics they believe to be engaged in it - Kimes points to one historical example - the New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel, who excommunicated three prominent segregationists in the 1960s after warning them that their relationship to the church was at risk if they didn't change their ways. Kimes says the church today sees abortion as a foundational issue, but not the only issue for Catholics in public life.

KIMES: So Pope Francis is telling us that racism and aggressive anti-migrant attitudes or abuses perpetrated against migrants, migrant workers - all of these things are also gravely sinful, as is abortion.

MCCAMMON: In September, Pope Francis called abortion homicide, while also saying that he had never denied the Eucharist to anyone. He's cautioned against politicizing the sacrament. This week, the bishops will have a chance to discuss, amend and vote on a draft document regarding the Eucharist. If the U.S. bishops approve a document that calls for denying Communion over support for abortion rights, the Vatican could choose to reject it, potentially setting up a showdown between Rome and the U.S. bishops.

Amy Kemerer lives in the Indianapolis area, where she attends mass weekly and home-schools her four kids.

AMY KEMERER: Seventeen, 15, 13 and 8.

MCCAMMON: Kemerer says she agrees strongly with Catholic teachings on abortion and voted twice for former President Trump, largely because of that issue. And yet she's concerned about some bishops' focus on it.

KEMERER: The impact is it's dividing Catholics further. We have a church that's already suffering. And they're adding to the division and the suffering of the church. The rules have been there for thousands of years. They don't need to be rewritten.

MCCAMMON: The discussion about abortion within the Roman Catholic Church is happening at a high-stakes moment, with many American Catholics at odds with their church on the issue, and as a heavily Catholic Supreme Court prepares to hear a case that could dramatically roll back abortion rights.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE'S "SUNRISE OVER LA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.

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