A divided conference of US Roman Catholic bishops announced that they had voted to draft a statement on Holy Communion that may admonish Catholic politicians, including President Joe Biden, who support abortion rights.
The 168-55 decision to draft a teaching document on the sacrament of the Eucharist came after two hours of debate at the virtual assembly of the United States Catholic Bishops' Conference yesterday.
During this debate, the bishops weighed the merits of reaffirming church teachings against the possibility of sowing partisan division.
The debate this week laid bare some of the cultural and political rifts that have rocked the church in the last several years.
US Catholic Church membership has dropped nearly 20% in the past two decades, according to a Gallup poll in March.
During that period, sexual abuse scandals involving predatory priests have come to light and members have become increasingly divided on social issues.
The bishops in favour of drafting the document insisted that it would not call out any individual politician by name, but the topic of Mr Biden's social views came up repeatedly in the discussion.
Mr Biden, only the second Catholic to serve as US president after John F Kennedy, has alarmed many bishops by supporting same-sex marriage and abortion rights, views they say are antithetical to church doctrine.
Some bishops want to block politicians with views like Mr Biden's from receiving Communion. But any statement would serve as guidance, and individual bishops would be able to make an independent choice.
Asked if he was concerned by the bishops' decision and if he would be blocked from participating in Holy Communion, Mr Biden said: "That's a private matter and I don't think that's going to happen."
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, said the planned statement "is about what we believe about the Eucharist, how to live a eucharistic life, and to go forth in service.
"We do not cut off any person from the church."
President Biden attends Catholic mass every Sunday. He has said that he personally opposes abortion but supports a woman's right to choose.
He did not keep a Hyde Amendment ban on federal funds for abortions in his first budget presented earlier this year.
Some bishops advocating for drafting the document argued they had an obligation to clarify the church's teachings for all Catholics in light of inconsistencies in the faith and actions of public officials like Mr Biden.
"Almost daily I speak with people, Catholics...who are confused by the fact that we have a president who professes devout Catholicism and yet advances the most radical pro-abortion agenda in our history," said Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, Wisconsin, who supported drafting the document.
A Vatican official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, wrote to the conference in May urging caution on the debate over politicians' abortion views and Communion, saying it could become a "source of discord," Catholic News Service reported.
According to a Pew Research poll from 2019, about 56% of Catholics said they thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases.