What the Bishops Really Said at Baltimore

Published November 18, 2021

The Catholic World Report

After the bishops of the United States adopted “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” on November 17, it took the Washington Post less than an hour to misrepresent what the document taught, as Post’s online story was headlined, “U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approves Communion document without singling out politicians who support abortion rights.”

The Wall Street Journal, having had all day to ponder the bishops’ statement, got things completely wrong, too, when its day-after headline read, “Bishops Avoid Abortion Issue in Guidelines on Communion.”

If I may borrow from a heathen, Jeremy Bentham, that is all nonsense on stilts.

For those interested in this particular facet of a finely-crafted statement intended to reignite Eucharistic amazement and vigor in the Church, here are the key paragraphs with their footnotes:

38. Pope Francis has warned us that in our “throwaway culture” we need to fight the tendency to view people as “disposable”: “Some parts of our human family, it appears, can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered worthy of a carefree existence. Ultimately, “persons are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected, especially when they are poor and disabled, ‘not yet useful’ – like the unborn, or ‘no longer needed’ – like the elderly.”1 As Christians, we bear the responsibility to promote the life and dignity of the human person, and to love and to protect the most vulnerable in our midst: the unborn, migrants and refugees, victims of racial injustice, the sick and the elderly.

39. The Second Vatican Council stresses the importance of reverence toward the human person. “Everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary to living it with dignity, so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus.”2 The Council goes on to say that

“whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.”3

48. We also need to keep in mind that “the celebration of the Eucharist presupposes that communion already exists, a communion which it seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection.”4 The Eucharist is the sacrament of ecclesial communion, as it both signifies and effects most fully the communion with Christ that began in Baptism. This includes communion in its “visible dimension, which entails communion in the teaching of the Apostles, in the sacraments and in the Church’s hierarchical order.”5 Likewise, the reception of Holy Communion entails one’s communion with the Church in this visible dimension. We repeat what the U.S. Bishops stated in 2006:

“If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.”6

Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation is also likely to cause scandal for others, weakening their resolve to be faithful to the demands of the Gospel.7

49. One’s communion with Christ and His Church, therefore, involves both one’s “invisible communion” (being in the state of grace) and one’s “visible communion.” St. John Paul II explained:

“The judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience. However, in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved. The Code of Canon Law refers to this situation of a manifest lack of proper moral disposition when it states that those who ‘obstinately persist in manifest grave sin’ are not to be admitted to Eucharistic communion.”8

It is the special responsibility of the diocesan bishop to work to remedy situations that involve public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law. Indeed, he must guard the integrity of the sacrament, the visible communion of the Church, and the salvation of souls.

Which is to say:

1) Facilitating the grave moral evil of abortion is a public act that estranges one (to use Pope Francis’s term in a recent press conference) from full communion with the Church.

2) Those who are not in full communion with the Church because of their public actions should not present themselves for holy communion. To present oneself for holy communion is to state, publicly, that one is in full communion with the Church. If that is not the case, then the lie of presenting oneself for holy communion compounds the evil of the public acts that estrange one from the Church.

3) The bishops have a solemn obligation to inform estranged Catholics of their situation and work to catechize them in the truth. If that catechesis fails and the estranged Catholic obstinately continues to facilitate grave evil, then he or she must be told not to present himself or herself for holy communion.

These are settled truths of Catholic faith, and what “The Mystery of the Eucharist” proposes ought to have been long-settled Catholic pastoral practice. The bishops have now recommitted themselves to the hard work of bringing wayward Catholic public officials to the truth and they should be supported in those efforts by the people of the Church – who have their own responsibility to correct, in charity and candor, fellow-Catholics whose work in government facilitates the wickedness of killing innocent human beings in the name of “reproductive health care” (an Orwellian formulation if ever there was one). Bishops who work to bring public officials to the truth, and who then apply the appropriate disciplinary measures if those efforts fail, should be supported by their brother bishops. Bishops who decline to carry out that pastoral duty should be fraternally corrected by their brother bishops. And Catholics dubious about what they read in the press on virtually every other matter ought not take the bait cast by media outlets like the Post and the Journal and think that the bishops ducked the “abortion issue” when crunch-time came.

Why did so much of the media botch this story? An aide to a prominent American bishop got part of the answer when he wrote me that “the secular media came to write an abortion story and would not be deterred.” True enough, I suppose. But a competent, alert communications operation at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would have anticipated such spin – and immediately after “The Mystery of the Eucharist” was adopted, would have arranged a press briefing to explain what was just explained above.

And so, not for the first time, important work by the bishops over many months was undercut by what can only be described as inept staff work; charity forbids suggesting any other explanation.

So now what? More media nonsense notwithstanding, it was never within the competence of the USCCB to “ban” pro-abortion Catholic politicians from the reception of holy communion. Dealing with estranged Catholic public officials is the responsibility of local bishops. That responsibility has now been made unmistakably clear. So it is imperative that each diocesan Ordinary, on return from their annual meeting in Baltimore, see to the widespread dissemination of “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” explain its implications for all Catholics, and then get about the hard pastoral work of making clear to the Catholic public officials in their pastoral care the truth of those officials’ situation and its implications, if those officials are objectively estranged from the Church. Doing so has now been re-affirmed as the policy of the U.S., bishops conference. It behooves all bishops, but perhaps especially those most vocally supportive of collegiality and synodality, to implement that policy.

The bishops have called Catholics in all states of life to be more eucharistically centered, more eucharistically committed, and more eucharistically coherent. That was the intent of this document from the beginning. “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” thus deserves a careful reading by everyone. And all of us should examine conscience about our relationship to the sacrament from which, as John Paul II taught, the Church draws its life.

A few further thoughts on the events of the past few days in Baltimore are in order.

The apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, likely did not realize it, but he did not do good service to the pro-life movement when in his address to the bishops he said that it was important for Catholics to grasp and do something about the social problems that lead women to seek abortions – as if that had not been the case in the past and wasn’t the case now. But that is precisely what those Catholics who have given time, treasure, and countless acts of compassion and love to the women who have come to crisis pregnancy centers in the half-century after Roe v. Wade do. As Kevin D. Williamson recently put it, “We know what is [happening with] the women going into [the] human slaughterhouses” of Planned Parenthood “clinics:” “They are terrified, they are poor, they are alone, they have been discarded, they have had an overwhelming new variable thrown into their lives, which did not include very much comfort or certainty to begin with…” Pro-life people working with women in crisis pregnancies have long known all that; they respond to those horrible circumstances as Christ would have responded; and they don’t require instruction as to the putative necessity of broadening their horizons.

Archbishop Pierre’s counsel to the bishops to value “unity” above virtually all else was also unhelpful. Unity understood as virtual unanimity means that the lowest common denominator determines the course of a bishops’ conference’s teaching. That was not how collegiality and synodality were lived at the great councils of the patristic era. That was not how St. Charles Borromeo implemented the reforms of the Council of Trent in Milan. And while Pope St. Paul VI took great care that the documents of the Second Vatican Council were adopted by the greatest possible consensus, he refused to sacrifice truth to a false concept of unity as unanimity on such sharply contested issues as episcopal collegiality or religious freedom.

And finally, it would be instructive to know just who Archbishop Pierre was thinking of when he cautioned those tempted “to treat the Eucharist as something to be offered to the privileged few….”. I cannot think of a single bishop or priest who suffers from that temptation, and I would be surprised if the archbishop can name one, either. So why reiterate the cartoon view of American Catholicism too often found in La Civiltà Cattolica and other Roman circles in recent years? No good purpose is served by underwriting fantasies of a U.S. Catholicism stewed in the juices of Donatist self-righteousness.

The pastoral crisis of an American Church in which prominent lay Catholics act publicly in defiance of moral truths that can be known by both reason and revelation, yet imagine themselves worthy to receive holy communion, will continue. The bishops have now re-affirmed their responsibility to address that crisis, and “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” explains yet again the appropriate pastoral practices to be deployed to meet one important facet of the challenge of Eucharistic coherence. Lay Catholics should support the bishops in their efforts.

But lay Catholics must also get about our own work of fraternally correcting fellow-Catholics who facilitate the work of the “human slaughterhouses” to which Kevin Williamson refers – and must hold public officials accountable at the ballot box if they do not change their ways. It’s not the bishops who put President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, Senator Durbin, Representative DeLauro, and the rest of Planned Parenthood’s Amen Corner of Catholic Miscreants in office. It’s their fellow lay Catholics. And that must change.


1 Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, no. 18.

2 Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes, no. 27

3 Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes, no. 27.

4 Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 35.

5 Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 35; see also Code of Canon Law, c. 205 and Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, c. 8.

6 USCCB, “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper”: On Preparing To Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist, p. 11; see Code of Canon Law, can. 916: “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.”

7 See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2284.

8 Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 37; see Code of Canon Law, can. 915: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” Likewise, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches states that “those who are publicly unworthy are forbidden from receiving the Divine Eucharist” (c. 712).

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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