What Unites Us Divides Us
Stephen P. White
The Catholic bishops in the United States are divided over the best way to respond to Catholic politicians who defend, promote, and subsidize grave injustices and moral evils. We have been having similar debates for decades, though the issues and politicians in question have changed over time. The debate has, for understandable reasons, recently focused on the issue of abortion and the actions of President Joe Biden, but there are other politicians and issues to which the debate could be extended.
This broader debate about Catholics in public life, in turn, is often reduced to the particular question of whether such politicians ought to be denied Communion in order to prevent them from harming themselves and giving scandal to the community. Many bishops think charity demands such action and that the Church’s own law reflects this. Other bishops insist that, whatever the pastoral intention, denying the Eucharist to politicians like Joe Biden would be widely perceived as “politicizing the Eucharist.”
We now have a president who wears his Catholic devotion on his sleeve, even as he champions policies in direct contradiction to Church teaching and the simple demands of justice. And when the most prominent lay Catholic in the world is proclaiming (by word or deed) something contrary to the faith. . .well the bishops are naturally going to have something to say about that.
Archbishop José Gómez, the USCCB president, announced late last year that the conference would form an ad hoc committee to study the issue of “Eucharistic coherence.” The work of that committee was eventually handed over to the standing committee on doctrine, which was subsequently directed by the administrative committee of the conference to begin laying the groundwork for a teaching document on the Eucharist.
The point of this entire exercise, it should be noted, is to promote a collegial discussion among the bishops for the sake of building consensus so as to present a more unified response to an urgent pastoral concern.
Enter Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect for the Congregation of the Faith. Shortly after meeting with two American Cardinals who oppose conference efforts to address Eucharistic coherence, Cardinal Ladaria wrote a letter to Gómez emphasizing certain points of caution.
Any conference document on the question of Eucharistic coherence, Ladaria wrote, must avoid unnecessary division between the bishops. It ought to be marked by dialogue and strive for consensus. Ladaria’s letter also advised Gómez that no conference document would be binding on individual bishops (who retain discretion over sacramental discipline in their own dioceses) and that the issue of Communion for pro-choice politicians should not be dealt with outside the full context of the Church’s Eucharistic theology.
Now, all of this is wise counsel, so far as it goes, and none of it runs counter to the USCCB’s stated plans. Yet Ladaria’s letter was immediately declared a “wet blanket” in certain Catholic quarters, a not-too subtle attempt to put an end to the USCCB’s plans. Now, it may well be the case that such was Ladaria’s intention. But to read his letter that way requires one to presuppose that he, Ladaria, is seriously concerned that USCCB leadership is trying to preempt debate, disregard the importance of consensus, usurp the proper pastoral discretion of individual bishops, and isolate the question of Communion for politicians from the Church’s full teaching on the meaning of the Eucharist. Where, one wonders, would Cardinal Ladaria get such a warped notion of the USCCB’s intentions?
Last week, The Pillar reported  that a letter from some 68 bishops (about 15 percent of the bishops in the United States, for what it’s worth) was sent to Archbishop Gómez asking that, in light of Ladaria’s letter to Gómez, all committee work on the question of Eucharistic coherence should be halted. In other words, in the name of consensus and dialogue, a minority of bishops is requesting that preparations for further discussion be put on hold.
Since that letter became public, a number of other bishops have spoken publicly in support of Archbishop Gómez and the way USCCB leadership has proceeded. Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland Oregon, for example, put out a statement  that reads, in part:
Some of my brother bishops have asked to delay the process, but this would be a failure of our pastoral responsibility and a failure of collegiality. It would also be contrary to the guidance recently provided by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I stand by Archbishop Gómez and the leadership of the USCCB, and their commitment to provide guidance on pastoral questions surrounding the Holy Eucharist.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco released a similar statement, saying:
I’m deeply grieved by the rising public acrimony among bishops and the adoption of behind-closed-doors maneuvers to interfere with the accepted, normal, agreed-upon procedures of the USCCB. Those who do not want to issue a document on Eucharistic coherence should be open to debating the question objectively and fairly with their brother bishops, rather than attempting to derail the process.
It’s never edifying when serious disagreements between bishops spill over into the public eye. But a feigned consensus in a time of deep division only hides and prolongs the problem.
The American Church has suffered through decades of lax sacramental discipline, diminished reverence for the Eucharist, and sagging belief in the Real Presence. These are problems that will not be solved by denying Communion to this or that politician. At the same time, any attempt to promote understanding or renew devotion to the Eucharist will be hampered so long as our bishops imagine that ecclesial communion is damaged less by grave sin than it is by bishops who proclaim truths the world doesn’t want to hear.
For now, the Church in the United States remains divided over what unites us – which might be the clearest sign that a teaching document on the Eucharist is in order after all.
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.
A Blessing in Disguise?
If – and right now it’s a big “if” – the American bishops at their meeting later this month agree to proceed with a document on respect for the Eucharist, the recent, well-publicized differences among them could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Especially so if the document marks the start of a serious teaching effort in dioceses and parishes directed to Catholics who’ve grown confused and careless on this all-important subject.
Of course, that may only be wishful thinking. The unusual spectacle of bishops sniping publicly at one another rules out taking a happy ending for granted.
So, how did we get into this fix?
Late last year, worried at the prospect of a pro-choice Catholic, Joe Biden, in the White House, Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, set up a working group to make suggestions on how to proceed. One suggestion was for a statement on “Eucharistic coherence” – the principle that to receive Communion worthily, a Catholic should act in a manner consistent with the faith of the Church, something Biden’s vocal support for abortion manifestly isn’t.
Some bishops nevertheless were upset at the idea of a statement, complaining, in the words of one, that linking worthiness to receive communion to a pro-life stance on abortion would look like “weaponizing” the Eucharist to achieve a political result. (Back in 2004, as the bishops wrestled with the same question in regard to pro-choice Catholic presidential candidate John Kerry, then-cardinal Theodore McCarrick made the same argument. The bishops eventually concluded it was up to individual bishops in their dioceses to decide what to do.).
This time, beyond objecting publicly, certain bishops opposed to a document took steps privately. In early April, Cardinals Blase Cupich of Chicago and Joseph Tobin of Newark met quietly in Rome with Cardinal Luis Ladaria, S.J., prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A few days later, responding to a letter from Archbishop Gómez, Cardinal Ladaria dispatched a reply evidently based on the assumption the American bishops were planning a statement specifically targeting pro-choice Catholic politicians like Biden.
Cardinal Ladaria did not tell the bishops to drop the project. Instead, along with a green light to proceed, he offered cautionary notes – don’t speak only about politicians, don’t give the impression abortion is the only issue the Church cares about, and, especially, maintain unity among yourselves.
Alas, episcopal unity has proved elusive
In mid-May, a letter came to light addressed to Archbishop Gómez and signed by 67 of the 434 active and retired U.S. bishops. It urged that the proposal for a document be scratched from the agenda of USCCB’s June 16-18 general assembly.
Written on the letterhead of the Archdiocese of Washington, the letter included among its signers Cardinals Cupich, Tobin, Sean O’Malley of Boston, and Wilton Gregory of Washington. Missing from it were the names of the other two active cardinals who head American dioceses – Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston. Both are former USCCB presidents, as is Cardinal Gregory.
The letter touched off angry reactions by other bishops. Instead of following USCCB’s established procedures for discussing and voting on proposals, said Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, the 67 were “attempting to derail the process.
At this point, Archbishop Gómez sent all the bishops a letter in which, rather than removing the proposal from the agenda, he provided the outline for a document to be drafted by the USCCB doctrine committee chaired by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend. As described by Catholic News Service, the outline bears little resemblance to the kind of politically targeted statement apparently feared by the 67 dissenters. Topics to be covered are the Real Presence of Christ, the Eucharist as “fount and apex” of Christian life, moral transformation, Eucharistic consistency, and missionary discipleship.
Quite apart from the problem of pro-choice Catholic politicians, something like this from the hierarchy seems badly needed. Empirical evidence and casual observation both point to a serious crisis in American Catholicism centering on faith in the Blessed Sacrament.
The evidence includes a precipitous drop in the percentage of weekly Mass attenders in the Catholic population, from 74 percent in 1958 to 21.9 percent in 2019 and projected to fall even lower in the next year or two. Bishops and pastors in a number of places have begun pleading with Catholics who stopped attending Mass during the pandemic lockdown to come back. It remains to be seen how many will. Meanwhile, polls show that two-thirds of all self-identified Catholics – including a third of weekly Mass attendees – believe Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is only symbolic.
As for receiving Communion, Catholic practice has veered from one extreme to another. Years ago, when lines outside confessionals were a familiar Saturday evening sight in many parishes, a substantial portion of the typical Sunday morning congregation still did not receive. Today, although most Catholics seldom – and many never – go to Confession, nearly everyone receives.
How so? Writing in America, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver gave this explanation: “Many baptized Catholics do not take the Eucharist seriously because they do not take sin seriously.” And the main reason for that, he added, is “bad catechesis overseen by me and my brother bishops for too long.”
A statement from the bishops won’t undo the damage. But a solid document, combined with a sustained catechetical effort in dioceses and parishes focused on the Blessed Sacrament and its importance in Christian life, might begin to turn things around. In which case the flap over Joe Biden and Communion really would be a blessing in disguise.
Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity .
*Center image: Recession of bishops after Mass at St. Peter Claver Church in Baltimore (November 14, 2016) during the annual fall general assembly of the USCCB [CNS photo/Bob Roller]