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The decision of U.S. Catholic bishops to draft a new document on communion, a move rooted in distress over President Joe Biden's abortion rights stance, continues to stoke a heated national debate that most Minnesota bishops apparently want to steer clear of.

When asked how they voted and why, just two of Minnesota's six Catholic bishops offered public disclosure: St. Cloud Bishop Donald Kettler voted to draft the document and Crookston Bishop Richard Pates voted against it. St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda was among those who declined to disclose how and why he voted.

Although the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last month said the document would not call for withholding communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, there remains uncertainty and distrust over what it will say. Regional meetings for bishops are slated in the months ahead to iron out its message, and many Catholics in the pews are wondering how their own bishops voted and what they'll bring to the table.

"Good policy means transparency," said Jim Scheibel, a former St. Paul mayor and lifelong Catholic who opposed the proposed communion ban for Biden and other politicians. "Bishops are not saying what they've done and not saying what they'll do in the future. It's important for us to know so we can have guidance and discussion moving forward."

Abortion opponents such as Brian Gibson of Pro-Life Action Ministries said he'd be interested in learning how bishops voted but that public disclosure isn't required because Catholicism "is not a democracy, it's a church." Abortion opponents were disappointed in the apparent shift away from sanctioning politicians, he said, and hope the spirit of that language remains in the document to be drafted.

"Were pro-life people looking for something to happen?" Gibson asked. "Absolutely, and we still are."

Judged on political terms

Earlier in the year, a group of conservative U.S. bishops had notified a top Vatican official that they were "preparing to address the situation of Catholics in public office who support legislation allowing abortion, euthanasia or other moral evils." The provision would be part of a document on the eucharist.

So the eyes of Catholics nationwide were glued to the meeting of the bishops' conference last month, which was livestreamed. More than 40 bishops weighed in on the debate. After the document's authors assured the group it wouldn't be about a communion ban for politicians, the bishops voted to create a "formal statement on the meaning of the eucharist in the life of the church."

It unclear what that statement will say. But despite denials from bishops, many Catholics on both sides of the communion ban believe it will include the issues of abortion and communion.

Some Minnesota bishops followed up quickly. Kettler, one of the 66 bishops who had asked the conference to hold off on the vote, penned a detailed letter to members of the St. Cloud diocese and argued that such an important statement should be worked out in person, not virtually.

"I am satisfied with the level of discussion we were able to have during the spring assembly, and I look forward to the regional discussion among bishops to help guide the final text ..." Kettler wrote in the diocesan newsletter. "Whether or not to withhold communion is a matter between an individual, his or her pastor, and his or her bishop."

Pates, the interim administrator of the Crookston diocese, said he voted against creating the document because it went against the Vatican's recommendation, which was to delay the vote until the bishops had more consensus among themselves and to insure it did not single out just "one category of Catholics."

"My vote ... was guided by the letter of Cardinal [Luis] Ladaria of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith," wrote Pates in a statement to the Star Tribune.

Other Minnesota bishops did not disclose their votes. Bishop John Quinn of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester responded by referring to a document on the bishops' conference website unrelated to the inquiry. Duluth Bishop Daniel Felton's office wrote that he was "not disclosing how he voted or issuing a statement about it at this time" but that he "looks forward to future conversations about the document."

Hebda did not respond to requests for comment.

But in the Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper, he praised the bishops' conference for "promoting collaboration" in its decision making and explained how the new document will be drafted.

Twin Cities Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens also did not respond. As head of the bishops' National Eucharistic Revival and chairman of the conference's Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, he will help draft the document.

The private nature of the vote may have created an inaccurate count of the measure's support. The bishops' conference announced that 168 bishops had voted in favor of drafting a new communion document, 55 voted against and 6 abstained. But 30 bishops who had registered the first day of the conference failed to vote at all, said Chieko Noguchi, a conference spokesperson.

It's not surprising that bishops are reluctant to reveal their votes, said Massimo Faggioli, former theology professor at the University of St. Thomas who now teaches at Villanova University near Philadelphia.

"They worry their vote will be judged on political terms," said Faggioli. "I think they understand how damaging political partisanship can be."

Contrasting views

In the months ahead, the document drafted by the conference's committee on doctrine will focus on the eucharist as a mystery to be believed, celebrated and lived.

Bishops across the country will offer input at regional meetings this summer, as will committees in the bishops' conference. The document will be sent to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before it heads to the U.S. bishops' November assembly for discussion and a vote.

Felton, in his letter to Duluth Catholics, outlined his hopes that the document will heal divisions among Catholics on the communion issue and encourage the faithful to reflect on "the obligation for everyone — not just politicians — to live according to principles of Catholic moral and social teaching." That includes teachings on abortion and euthanasia, as well as care for the poor and vulnerable and God's creation, he wrote.

Felton's letter reflects the contrasting opinions about what the communion document should say. There remains a group of influential bishops focused on the issue of whether politicians who support abortion rights politicians should receive communion. Balancing those interests will be the challenge of writing this document, experts say.

"Even if you publish a wonderful document if there continues to be a small group of vocal bishops who keep saying in public that Joe Biden should be denied communion, that's what Catholics are going to hear," said Faggioli. "People aren't going to bother to read the document."

Both sides of the debate are monitoring the issue closely.

"A lot of people care about this issue," said Scheibel, noting that his Minneapolis church group is considering its options. "People are searching for the right kind of response, both individually and collectively."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511