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U.S. bishops to seek ‘middle way’ on Holy Communion at annual conference in Baltimore

One of the controversies facing the Catholic church in recent months has been the question of Holy Communion — specifically whether it should be offered to Catholic politicians, including President Joe Biden, who advocate for abortion rights.

Some Catholics say it shouldn’t, on the grounds that an abortion rights stance violates basic teachings of the denomination. Others want their sacraments and politics kept separate. But don’t expect the nation’s Catholic bishops to settle the matter any time soon.

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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops holds its four-day annual general assembly in Baltimore starting Monday, as it has every year but one since 2006. The conference brings nearly 300 of the nation’s top Catholic prelates together in Baltimore, the center of the first and oldest U.S. diocese, to weigh, discuss and vote on the issues affecting the American church as a whole.

As they do each year, the bishops stay at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront on the Inner Harbor, and meet there, as well.

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This year’s agenda has the clerics hearing reports on socially responsible investing and an initiative aimed at supporting pregnant women. They’re expected to discuss and vote on new translations of liturgy, choose new chairmen of five major committees and approve a budget for 2022.

The most hotly anticipated moment might be when a committee that has been asked to take a fresh look at the practice of Holy Communion presents a polished version of a document it’s been working for a year and a half.

Some in the church have wondered whether it will take a stance on the question of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, such as Biden and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But, according to Archbishop William E. Lori of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the document as it stands spurns politics in favor of striking an uplifting, pastoral tone.

“This document will not take up the question of [whether politicians should be given communion],” said Lori, who served as a consultant to the Committee on Doctrine, which wrote the report. “It does speak about the question of worthiness to receive Holy Communion. It simply speaks to what all of us should know and reflect on before we receive Holy Communion.”

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The rite, also known as the Eucharist, calls for Catholics to consume bread and wine that has been blessed by a priest. Unlike other denominations, the Catholic Church considers the bread and wine to have been transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

However, a survey of U.S. Catholics conducted by the Pew Center for Research in 2019 found that only 30% embrace the belief that the Eucharist contains Christ’s blood and body. Lori said the church takes such findings seriously and that the statistics reflect a range of larger challenges, from a decline in church attendance over the years to an “erosion of belief” that lies behind it.

The worldwide church is embarking on multiyear “eucharistic revival project,” he said, and the U.S. bishops decided they could contribute by writing a document that views the rite — the most important of the church’s seven sacraments — through fresh eyes. That, he says, calls not for a political statement, but for “pointing out some of the truths about the Eucharist that are especially timely,” including how it “puts us in touch with Christ’s redemptive sacrifice of love.”

When the document is presented, Lori said, the bishops will have an opportunity to amend it. They could submit suggested changes to the committee, which could then bring them to the full body for a vote. Still, he expects the group to find a “middle way.”

“There will be various kinds of amendments, but my sense is that the bishops are focused on pastoral issues, on wanting to invite people back to the Eucharist and to help people to be robust in their faith in the Eucharist,” he said.

The scene around the Marriott will not be without controversy. Hundreds are expected to attend a rally Tuesday by Church Militant, a far-right group whose members protest what they consider a leftward drift by the worldwide church. The group will rally at MECU Pavilion, within view of the bishops’ hotel, after winning a court battle with the city of Baltimore over its right to appear. Scheduled speakers include former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who was indicted Friday on charges of contempt of Congress for ignoring subpoenas, and conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos.

Lori said it is not unusual for groups to protest while the bishops meet and expressed gratitude to the bishops’ conference for providing security for the meetings.

Last year’s assembly was virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic, which means the bishops haven’t come together in the same place for two years. They’ll practice some social distancing and wear masks, Lori said, in compliance with Baltimore City guidelines, but that won’t diminish the joy of his colleagues’ return.

“I’m always very happy when the bishops are here in Baltimore, the nation’s first diocese,” he said. “I always think of it as a homecoming.”

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