A vote by the U.S. bishops was the most dramatic example of the conservative Catholic movement’s reach since Joseph R. Biden was elected. But the contingent had been gaining strength throughout the Trump era.
WASHINGTON — Pope Francis and President Biden, both liberals, are the two most high-profile Roman Catholics in the world.
But in the United States, neither of these men is determining the direction of the Catholic Church. It is now a conservative movement that decides how the Catholic Church asserts its power in America.
That reality was unmistakably declared last week, when the country’s bishops voted overwhelmingly to draft guidelines for the Eucharist, advancing a conservative push to deny Mr. Biden communion over his support for abortion rights.
“There is a special obligation of those who are in leadership because of their public visibility,” Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, who heads the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in Indiana, said after the vote.
It was the most dramatic example of the conservative Catholic movement’s reach since Mr. Biden was elected. But the contingent had been gaining strength throughout the Trump era, clashing with the Vatican, wresting influence away from Pope Francis’ top representatives in the United States and further polarizing the Catholic faithful in the process. And now, American Catholics are facing an internal war over one of the church’s most sacred rituals, the Eucharist, which represents the body and blood of Christ.
Leading U.S. allies of Pope Francis, including Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark and Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, sided with the Vatican’s warning against proceeding with the eucharistic document, but they were ultimately drowned out. The measure passed with a vote of 73 percent who approved it compared with 24 percent who opposed it.
That 73 percent represents emerging conservative momentum, at odds with Pope Francis’ broader range of priorities on issues like immigration, poverty and climate change, not only among bishops but in parishes across the country. Although the church has a hierarchical structure, bishops have significant autonomy in their own dioceses. Among the conservative movement’s leaders: Bishop Rhoades, who chairs the bishops’ committee on doctrine.
Bishop Rhoades, who, like Mr. Biden, grew up in Pennsylvania, was installed as the head of the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., in 2010 and has publicly tangled with Mr. Biden in the past. In 2016, he criticized the decision by the University of Notre Dame to honor Mr. Biden, who was then vice president, citing his support for abortion rights and gay marriage, in violation of the church’s teaching. “I disagree with awarding someone for ‘outstanding service to the Church and society’ who has not been faithful to this obligation,” he said at the time.
Catholics in his state have been at the forefront of anti-abortion activism, pushing abortion restrictions, defending them in court and pressuring elected officials to support former President Donald J. Trump’s nominations to the Supreme Court. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court’s newest Catholic judge, hails from the University of Notre Dame, in Bishop Rhoades’ diocese.
The rightward shift comes as conservative movements are rising in Christianity, pushing back against increasing secularism and the overall decline of Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic. The sex abuse crisis has also pushed many parishioners away from the church.
White Catholics are increasingly Republican: About six in 10 registered white Catholic voters are now Republican, compared with four in 10 in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, about two-thirds of Hispanic Catholic voters have remained Democrats over the past decade.
Pope Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America, has taken on the rising conservatism in the United States, especially in public clashes with Mr. Trump on racism, immigration and what it means to be a true Christian.
The bishops’ conference, held virtually last week, revealed a network of conservative church strongholds across the country, as bishop after bishop presented himself as a defender of the true faith, often in the face of what they described as persecution from liberal Christians, secular society and the news media.
Heroes of the Catholic right, including bishops long known for their ardent opposition to gay rights and contraception, were among the statement’s most prominent supporters.
Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco urged Catholics after the vote to “remember the eucharistic martyrs who died to protect the Most Blessed Sacrament from profanation.”
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, who leads the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, criticized public officials who “flaunt their Catholicity” but whose policies the church does not support.
“We are at a new moment in the pro-life movement,” he told the bishops. “Those who advocate for abortion no longer talk in the language of choice — they talk about it as a right.”
The clerics ultimately endorsed a plan to draft a statement that could be used as theological justification to deny communion to Mr. Biden and Catholic politicians like him who support abortion rights.
Christians receive communion to remember the sacrifice made by Jesus in his death. For Catholics, the ritual is a sacrament and the central part of every Mass. Catholic teaching instructs that the bread and wine literally transforms into the body and blood of Christ during Mass. To be denied the Eucharist is to be denied the presence of Christ.
Conservative Catholics, not only evangelicals, had significant power in Mr. Trump’s administration, especially in advancing his anti-abortion agenda and appointment of about 200 federal judges. Several top officials were conservative Catholics, including Pat Cipollone, the former White House counsel; Mick Mulvaney, the former White House chief of staff; and Kellyanne Conway, a former counselor to Mr. Trump. Outside partners, like Leonard A. Leo of the Federalist Society and Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network, also held influence.
Now, in the early months of the Biden administration, the bishops’ actions have newly emboldened the conservative grass roots. CatholicVote, a conservative political group, began fund-raising off the decision within hours.
In Fort Worth on Saturday, the Rev. Jim Gigliotti drafted a letter to Representative Ted Lieu, a Catholic Democrat from California, writing “your very soul is in jeopardy” and informing him that he would be refused Communion if he happened to attend Mass at Mr. Gigliotti’s parish.
“Confrontation is a ministry of caring,” Father Gigliotti said.
Mr. Lieu, in a series of tweets after the bishops’ vote, had called them “hypocrites” for not instructing former attorney general William P. Barr to abstain from the Eucharist because of his employment of the death penalty when he served under Mr. Trump. Mr. Lieu dared the bishops to deny him Communion, pointing out that he supports contraception, the right to same-sex marriage and “a woman’s right to choose,” which are all violations of Catholic teaching.
In Oakdale, Minn., the Rev. Brian Lynch, associate pastor at Transfiguration Catholic Church, said he had discussed the bishops’ conference from the pulpit and encouraged his congregants to write letters of support for the Eucharist statement before the vote.
To Father Lynch, the example that Mr. Biden is providing to ordinary Catholics is intolerable. “The old-fashioned language would be that the current situation is scandalous: that someone can hold positions that are completely contrary to what the church teaches and publicly present themselves as a devout Catholic,” he said. “That’s not the traditional meaning of ‘devout.’”
Some conservative Catholics have felt disturbed watching Mr. Biden’s evolution on the abortion issue over the course of his decades in Washington.
“Biden has just transformed himself into the most radical pro-abortionist,” said John Hittinger, a philosophy professor at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic institution in Houston. If the bishops don’t step in, he said, “anything goes, and what does it even mean to be Catholic?”
Ryan T. Anderson, the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative organization in Washington, said that bishops taking action on a contemporary political issue was simply a matter of obedience to church teaching, regardless of partisanship.
He pointed to the example of Joseph Francis Rummel, the archbishop of New Orleans in the 1950s, who proclaimed racial segregation “morally wrong and sinful” and eventually excommunicated three prominent church members who opposed him.
Outside observers, and even many lay Catholics, don’t understand the deep sacredness of the Eucharist in church teaching and tradition, said Mary Hallan FioRito, a Catholic lawyer and commentator in Chicago.
If Ms. FioRito’s children violate the church instruction to fast for one hour before receiving the Eucharist, she tells them not to receive it. She has friends who attend Mass frequently but do not even request the Eucharist because they were married outside the church and are therefore not in “valid” marriages. Mr. Biden, she said, should know better than to try to receive communion given his position on abortion.
“For Catholics, the Eucharist is not a symbol,” she said. “It’s Christ himself.”
In Maine, Emily Holtzclaw attended Mass on Sunday morning for one of the first times since the beginning of the pandemic. She grew up in a liberal Catholic family and is married to a man who works for Planned Parenthood. It was a comfort and relief to return to the Eucharist in particular, she said.
The bishops’ vote last week could lead to a slippery slope “where eventually Catholics like me are going to be excluded,” Ms. Holtzclaw said. But partaking of the sacrament on Sunday morning had strengthened her resolve to remain faithful to the tradition that she loves.
“They’re going to have to take it away from me,” she said.
Elizabeth Dias reported from Washington and Ruth Graham from Dallas.