LOS ANGELES — “Brothers,” Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gómez addressed his colleagues, “before we come to the end of our meeting, I have an announcement to make.”
It was the middle of November, two weeks after Joseph R. Biden Jr. was elected president, marking only the second time that a Roman Catholic was headed to the White House. And the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops had gathered virtually for a meeting amid a growing push by conservative bishops to withhold one of Christianity’s holiest rites from the man about to occupy the Oval Office.
“This presents certain opportunities,” Gómez, in his usual soft tone, said of Biden’s election, “but also certain challenges.”
Gómez, the group’s leader, told the bishops at the November meeting that Biden had given them reason to believe he’d support what the archbishop characterized as “good policies” on immigration reform and climate change, and against racism and the death penalty.
But the incoming president also had voiced support for what Gómez has described as “certain policies that would advance moral evils,” chief among them “the continued injustice of abortion” — a scenario that Gómez said could sow “confusion with the faithful about what the church actually teaches.”
So, after getting input from many fellow leaders, Gómez, a skilled conciliator, announced that he’d decided to launch a working group to examine the issue.
“This is a difficult and complex situation,” Gómez told the gathering, according to a recording of the meeting posted on YouTube.
In the months that have followed, the depth of that complexity has become abundantly clear, revealing sharp disagreements among the bishops themselves and laying bare deeper concerns about the future of the church amid a continued slump in attendance among U.S. Catholics.
Tensions rose higher leading up to the bishops’ June meeting, when they overwhelmingly approved a controversial plan to draft a teaching document that could lay the groundwork for denying the sacrament of the Eucharist, also known as the Holy Communion, to Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. The head of the bishops’ doctrine committee, which is drafting the still-unfinished document, has repeatedly stressed that the statement isn’t intended to be directed toward any specific Catholic or about any one issue.
Although the bishops’ actions have drawn support from conservative Catholics and anti-abortion activists, they have deeply disturbed some lay Catholics, as well as a faction of bishops who have argued that the step could weaponize the Eucharist and alienate many members of their flocks.