BALTIMORE (AP) — Pope Francis’ top envoy to the United States cautioned the country’s bishops on Tuesday that the church needs to listen before it teaches as they deliberated at their fall meeting on a sensitive document about Holy Communion that emerged amid debates over Catholic politicians’ support for abortion.
“It is sometimes said that there is a lot of confusion about doctrine in the church today,” Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal ambassador, told the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “However, the argument continues that what is needed is clear teaching. That is true, but the Holy Father says a church that teaches must be firstly a church that listens.”
His remarks in the first public session of the gathering in Maryland came as bishops were readying to hold a vote on the document, which has been months in the making and has been surrounded by debate over the taking of communion by President Joe Biden and other politicians who support abortion rights.
Some bishops argue that it’s necessary to send a rebuke to such officials because it’s a source of scandal and confusion for them to partake in the sacrament; others have called the document divisive and said it politicizes Communion.
Pierre focused on an initiative of Francis known as the Synod on Synodality, which will involve a series of dialogues in local churches around the world over the next two years.
“As we listen to God and to one another, we learn,” he told the U.S. bishops. “The church needs this attentive listening now more than ever if she is to overcome the polarization facing this country.”
A draft of the Communion document mentions abortion only once and doesn’t identify Biden or other politicians by name, though it says at one point, “Lay people who exercise some form of public authority have a special responsibility to embody Church teaching.”
The bishops discussed the document only briefly in open session Tuesday afternoon, with minor suggestions such as making the text more accessible for children or those with little background in doctrine. No one brought up publicly the issue of politicians and abortion.
However the bishops have had ample time to talk about it more candidly privately in executive sessions that began Monday. Amendments could be offered through the end of the day ahead of final debate and vote scheduled for Wednesday.
But Bishop Michael Burbidge, chairman of the conference’s communications committee, said that after months of opportunities for comment on the draft, “I don’t see many significant changes” being made at this point.
The conference cannot dictate a blanket policy on denying Communion to politicians; each bishop has authority in his own diocese.
While some bishops have said they would deny the sacrament to Biden, the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, has affirmed that the president is welcome to receive the sacrament there. Biden has said that Pope Francis, too, told him in a recent private meeting to continue receiving Communion.
The document would require a two-thirds vote for approval.
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the bishops’ conference, also spoke of listening in his opening remarks, saying he observed Americans being more willing to listen to the church.
After the disruptions of the pandemic, he said, many “are searching for God” and “ready to listen once again to the word of truth.”
Mark Sadd, chair of the National Advisory Council, also offered several cautions about the Communion document.
Summarizing reactions of lay people and religious order members on the council, he said Communion should not “be a tool for division” or used for partisan purposes. He added that bishops must determine who their main audience is for the teaching, and to consider simplifying the document.
The gathering is the bishops’ first in-person national meeting since the pandemic took hold in the U.S. in March 2020. Bishops were asked to wear masks during the session except when they approached a microphone to speak.
Protesters from rivaling political vantagepoints have targeted the gathering.
On Monday a coalition of liberal Catholic groups — supporters of racial justice, women’s ordination and LGBTQ inclusion — protested outside the hotel accommodating the meeting, saying they oppose politicizing Communion.
And on Tuesday another protest, attended by a couple hundred people, was convened at a nearby pavilion by Church Militant, a conservative Catholic news outlet known for its criticism of Francis, its opposition to vaccination mandates and its claims that the church is too tolerant of homosexuality.
“Abortion and homosexuality in the priesthood — the two big issues killing the church,” said one of the protesters, Shawn Marshall of Roanoke, Virginia.
Among the speakers at the demonstration was the Rev. James Altman, who was ordered by his bishop to resign as a parish priest in Wisconsin this year after a series of divisive remarks about politics and the pandemic. Altman refused and raised several hundred thousand dollars from supporters to challenge his removal from public ministry.
The U.S. bishops “have betrayed us, denied us, abandoned us,” Altman told rallygoers.
Associated Press journalist Jessie Wardarski in Baltimore contributed to this report.
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