Published November 18, 2021
BALTIMORE—The American bishops have been meeting in Baltimore this week for the annual general assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). This is the first time they have met as a body, in person, since before the pandemic. Most of them seemed happy to be together again. Few of them seemed to relish the prospect of a fight over whether pro-choice politicians ought to be denied Communion. And many of them were visibly relieved when that fight – long-anticipated in the press – never really materialized.
Unlike the hours of contentious debate that preceded the decision to draft the document on the Eucharist in the life of the Church, the vote to pass it was a cakewalk. The bishops voted with near unanimity, approving the teaching document 222-8 (with 3 abstentions).
One reason the vote was more fizzle than sizzle: this week’s meetings opened in closed executive session with no media present and no livestream. Presumably, any serious points of contention were resolved then.
But the biggest reason the document sailed through with virtually no controversy is that the document largely avoided the neuralgic questions surrounding Communion for pro-abortion politicians. Many people will be disappointed by this. Others are relieved. No one should have been surprised.
When the bishops voted last summer to approve a draft of this document the Conference insisted, “The question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.” That was the case then; it remains the case now. According to canon law, the responsibility for sacramental discipline in a given diocese lies with the local ordinary (i.e., bishop). Nothing the USCCB was ever going to do was going to change that. There was nothing it could do to change that.
But if so, what was the point of the exercise? Why all the fuss – and contentious press coverage – in order to pass a document that simply restates Church teaching on the Eucharist?
There are several reasons. The first is that Eucharistic theology matters, and one of the reasons the debate about denying Communion to pro-choice politicians has been so contentious for decades is that Catholics are divided about what the Eucharist is and what it means. Pope Francis is fond of saying that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a medicine for sinners. I don’t know anyone who disagrees.
There is disagreement, at least here in the United States, about whether grave injustice like promotion of abortion damages ecclesial communion and endangers souls or not. There is disagreement about whether the Eucharist has a bearing on the way we live. There is disagreement about whether the way we live has a bearing on our fitness to receive the Eucharist. There is disagreement about whether belonging to the Body of Christ is a matter of subjective feelings of guilt or innocence (paradoxically, a rather legalistic mindset) or if there is a deeper communal and ecclesial reality at play. And, of course, there is deep disagreement within the Church about whether partisan politicians, rather than Catholic bishops, ought to continue to define publicly what it means to be Catholic.
And in case you haven’t noticed, there is deep disagreement among bishops about how best to address the reality that we Catholics are so divided over what ought to unite us.
And this brings us to the second reason the bishops’ decision to issue this document may prove important. While the Conference as a whole was never going to enforce a blanket ban of pro-choice politicians receiving Communion (again, because it couldn’t), a clear restatement of fundamental Eucharistic theology provides a clean starting point for bishops looking to break out of the disastrous status quo.
When there is so much confusion and division, it makes sense to go back to basics.
And this, I think, might explain why some of the people who worried about what the document might say against pro-choice politicians are still so unhappy about the document, despite the fact that it says relatively little about that issue. It just so happens that a clear statement of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist makes things very uncomfortable for them.
Former L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahony, for example, gave a wild interview to Vatican News earlier this week in which he lamented that the bishops taking up the issue of the Eucharist was unnecessarily divisive. What did he propose as a better way forward? The cringe-inducing letter penned by sixty pro-choice legislators this past summer in which they proclaimed that public support for abortion-on-demand was their way of defending the value of human life. Really.
“And I was thrilled,” Mahony said, “on June 18th, 60 Catholic Members of Congress, issued a statement of principles. I read it through two to three times, and I said, ‘This is us! This is the Church!’”
While it’s a bit bland, the document the bishops just passed provides a striking contrast to the selective and hackneyed account of Eucharist theology attempted by those sixty politicians in that letter. For anyone who wants to hide behind the muddled reasoning put forward by those politicians, clear teaching of the basics poses a threat.
And that’s the final point about this document. It represents a tacit admission from the bishops that the deep divisions in the Church, including about the Eucharist, aren’t going to be resolved by denying Communion to this or that politician. After decades of failing to take decisive pastoral action, the bishops now face a much bigger pastoral task than they once did.
The deep divisions in the Church make it clear that the Church needs a big change. This document isn’t it. But it might prove an important brick in beginning lasting renewal. This document is the cornerstone for the Eucharistic revival the bishops are planning for the United States. Expect that revival to continue to meet resistance from the usual suspects along the way.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.