Paul Tuns

On June 17, 73 per cent of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted during their annual spring meeting to draft a position paper on the “meaning of the Eucharist,” with an eye to reiterating the Church’s position that politicians who dissent from key moral teachings such as abortion should not present themselves to receive Holy Communion during Mass.

The issue of so-called “Eucharistic coherence” has come to a head with Joe Biden becoming the second Catholic president in U.S. history, but the first to so publicly contradict key moral teachings.

Prior to the vote, it was far from clear that those who wanted to denounce public figures who flaunt their Catholicity while taking positions contrary to its moral teachings would win. The Holy See reportedly sent a letter to USCCB president, Los Angeles Archbishop José Horacio Gómez, asking for a delay in debating any such national policy on the Eucharist and calling for more dialogue.

But in a 166-58 vote during the virtual conference, the USCCB decided to draft a document on the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist, including a clarification that dissenting politicians should not receive Holy Communion; the document will be debated and voted upon at the conference’s November meeting. In a statement released by the USCCB after the vote, the bishops said: “The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

The USCCB’s doctrinal committee will draft a document on the Eucharist, with a section providing guidance on the conditions under which politicians may present themselves for Communion. Even if passed, the document cannot compel a bishop to follow the advice, but advocates of taking a firm stand say it will teach dissenters and the public about the importance of both the Eucharist and the Church’s moral teachings.

Bishop Liam Cary of Baker, Oregon, said, “We’ve never had a situation like this where the executive is a Catholic president opposed to the teaching of the Church.” San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said, “Our credibility is on the line.” Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said, Biden’s support of abortion “is the most aggressive thing we’ve seen in terms of this attack on life when it’s most innocent.”

Robert Royal, editor of The Catholic Thing, said, “To allow leaders — at the highest levels of government now — who call themselves Catholics to continue to vigorously promote abortion (forget the ‘personally opposed’ of days gone by), homosexuality, and curbs on religious liberty means that what little public influence the Church still retains is on a fast track to oblivion.”

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy charged his colleagues with “weaponizing the Eucharist” and said disciplining pro-abortion politicians would lead to a “theology of exclusion and unworthiness.” He also claimed that taking action on abortion and euthanasia, “will fatally undermine the ability of the Church in the U.S. to witness with credibility to the integrity of Catholic social teaching including the Church’s condemnation of racism, poverty, and environmental destruction.”

Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich was among the nearly five dozen prelates who opposed drafting the document. He argued that before any action is taken by the USCCB, bishops should have conversations with pro-abortion Catholic politicians to understand what they believe and why they act as they do.

On the same day the USCCB voted to draft the document, 60 Democratic Catholic members of Congress who support abortion, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rosa De Lauro, released a joint letter to the bishops urging them to not take action against them over “one issue.” 17 Catholic Democrats, most of which also support abortion, did not sign the letter. Democrats for Life qualifies only three Democrats in Congress as pro-life.

The pro-abortion lawmakers claimed they were committed to “protecting the least among us” but did not include preborn babies in the litany of vulnerable people they endeavour to protect. The letter also favourably quoted Pope Francis who has said in the past that the Eucharist is not “a prize for the perfect.”

During a press conference on June 16, Biden was asked if he thought bishops would prevent him from receiving Holy Communion. He replied, “That’s a private matter and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

But Archbishop Cordileone said the matter is not purely private when a political leader flaunts his Catholicism while flouting its teachings; the scandal is public.

Some critics of the Catholic bishops note that despite his leadership in pressing for USCCB document, Archbishop Cordileone has not publicly rebuked pro-abortion Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who presents herself as a faithful Catholic. However, he recently issued a statement directing priests in his diocese to deny Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians who “are unwilling or unable to abandon (their) advocacy of abortion.”

Many in the secular media complained that the USCCB was focused singularly on the issue of abortion. Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty asked, “But if Catholic clergy are going to draw lines around the issue of abortion, why not punish politicians who disregard other pro-life social teachings of the church, including its opposition to the death penalty … or its support for freer immigration and generous social services for migrants?”

Royal had written before the USCCB meeting that abortion is unlike other moral teachings because of its gravity (the taking of the life), scale (about a million abortions each year), and the long-standing opposition to the practice, whereas other issues like welfare and immigration leave room for interpretation of what is just and moral.

Yet, on June 21, the USCCB released a question-and-answer sheet about the drafting of the new document which excised any mention of Biden and abortion and denied the possibility of a national policy. “There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians,” the USCCB said. “The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.”

On the same day, Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Kevin Rhoades, chair of the Doctrine Committee that will draft the document, told Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic newspaper, the final document will be addressed to all Catholics, not just politicians, and focus on “Eucharistic consistency” including a statement that canon law forbids all the faithful from receiving Communion if they are “conscious of serious sin.” He said, “These disciplinary laws have a medicinal, rather than punitive, purpose,” explaining that they are to bring Catholics in line with moral teaching if they are to receive Communion. Bishop Rhoades also said there would be regional meetings to allow more input from bishops.

Springfield, Illinois Bishop Thomas Paprocki said those calling for dialogue miss the point that the drafting and eventual release of the document is the impetus for an overdue conversation about Holy Communion. The need for the bishops to teach on the Eucharist was made clear by a Pew Research Center survey in 2019. It found that 43 per cent of American Catholics were unaware of the Church’s teaching about Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist and another 22 per cent said they knew about it but did not believe it.

Bishop Paprocki also answered those who said that collegiality requires unity among the bishops. In his June 23 open letter, Bishop Paprocki said, “There should be no unity with iniquity,” stressing, “Yes, we should strive for unity, but our unity should be based on the truths of our faith as found in Sacred Scripture and the constant Tradition of the Church.” He also said, “No one should want to be united on the path to perdition.”

Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski vaguely raised the possibility that Canada’s bishops might follow suit. He wrote, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the ire of some bishops in 2014 when he declared that all Liberal candidates had to “toe the party’s pro-choice line on abortion” and again when he required companies and organizations “applying for summer-jobs grants to attest that they adhered to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including its application to reproductive rights.” Yakabuski also said that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has become more outspoken on moral issues such as euthanasia and conversion therapy bans. He concluded his column: “Members of the USCCB are to vote on the new eucharistic guidance document in November. Needless to say, their Canadian counterparts will be watching closely.”

Campaign Life Coalition president emeritus Jim Hughes told The Interim, “I’m not holding my breath.” He recalled a meeting with the nuncio, the Holy See’s ambassador in Ottawa, when he inquired about whether the Canadian Catholic Church might take Trudeau to task for his pro-abortion position. Hughes said he was politely shown the door.