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Our American Catholic Rubicon

Nearly three-quarters of the U.S. bishops (166-58) voted Friday to prepare a document about Catholics receiving Holy Communion. The draft will then be debated and voted on at their annual November meeting. The bishops’ conference doesn’t have authority to tell specific politicians such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi not to come forward at Mass (though individual bishops may). Which is unfortunate, because the Church has reached a kind of Rubicon in America.

The moment is unprecedented. Bishop Liam Cary of Baker, Oregon, had it exactly right: “We’ve never had a situation like this where the executive is a Catholic president opposed to the teaching of the church.” Several bishops – Gomez, Naumann, Daly, Hying, and others – also spoke up boldly. And SF Archbishop Cordileone (“lion-heart”) put it bluntly: “Our credibility is on the line. . . .The eyes of the whole country are on us right now.”

It’s no surprise that a clash has arisen over the reception and very nature of the Eucharist now that we have a progressive Catholic presidency. We already know that a majority of American Catholics think – if they think about it at all, since three-quarters never attend Mass – that the Eucharist is not the Body and Blood of Christ. Forces hostile to the Church are happy to cite that fact.

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. We’re in peril of crossing a line after which the Faith will be under attack not only by an aggressive world with a wholly different understanding of what it means to be human – but by wayward Catholics themselves.

For instance, also on Friday, sixty members of Congress (among them abortion stalwarts such as Rosa De Lauro and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) signed a joint letter to the bishops, on Congressional stationery, presuming to instruct them on Catholic teaching. You can read this eye-popping text here [1], which urges the bishops not to take a drastic step over “one issue.” In those two words, the challenge to the bishops becomes clear: for numbers of public Catholics, destroying human life by the hundreds of thousands in the womb every year is just another “issue.”

The secular press and certain progressive Catholics have been touting the letter (though they have been strangely incurious why 17 Catholic Democrats did not join the other 60). They claim the letter is in harmony with Pope Francis’ non-confrontational methods: inviting people in, rather than condemning them. But that approach has been tried for decades. And there has been no recent “Francis Effect” – a tide of people coming back to the Church because of the softer approach.  If that were an effective pastoral strategy, Germany would be bursting with converts and reverts. Which, sadly, is not the case.


The sixty members of Congress leaned heavily on the Second Vatican Council, which called for reading the “signs of the times.” (Gaudium et Spes, ¶4) Whatever the situation in 1965, the signs of the times now all point to the continuing decline of the Church and the swift rise of various social currents actively hostile to Catholicism.

We’re used to politicians making self-serving public statements. These members of Congress have taken up the argument of a very few bishops that there should be no “weaponization” of the Eucharist. They’re partly right. But just who is trying to threaten whom, when the Church is merely trying to maintain its own disciplines in the face of the most aggressively anti-Catholic administration ever?

Church teaching about the Eucharist and who should receive it remains what it has always been. Even Pope Francis, in a calculated effort to suggest otherwise about the divorce and remarried, limited himself to suggesting small changes in two ambiguous footnotes in Amoris Laetitia. That wariness indicates that even he – whom many claim opposes the current moves by our bishops – is unwilling to openly contradict what our tradition has affirmed since the beginning.

Sad to say, some American bishops – the usual suspects – continue with strained and very weak arguments against action. Cardinal Cupich argued that before the bishops can do anything, they should engage pro-abortion Catholic lawmakers to find out why they believe and act as they do.

Is there anyone who doesn’t already know that? Or who thinks that raising this point is anything other than a (quite poor) delaying tactic? It’s a safe bet that the cardinal knows precisely why, say, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) advocates for abortion and much more. The previous archbishop of Chicago met with Durbin more than once and explained to him why he was wrong. Has Cupich?

Among the other usual suspects, San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy repeated his charge about “weaponizing” the Eucharist and even went further to say that disciplining dissenters would be a “theology of exclusion and unworthiness.” But the California bishop is confusing political and religious terms here.

It may be impossible in post-postmodern America to “exclude” or call anyone unworthy. But Jesus Himself, who was not a political triangulator, often warned people that, by their actions, they may exclude themselves from eternal life. And St. Paul, who knew as much about the Faith as anyone in San Diego, wrote: “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily [Gk. anaxios], shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 11:27)

Our American bishops have done something brave, even beautiful. And they will face turbulent and ugly days because of it. They didn’t start this fight, and some – who were not responsible for the poor catechesis we’ve suffered with for decades – will pay the price for others who were lax or reluctant to speak out. But they’ve faced a defining moment square on. Win or lose in the political arena, they deserve our respect and gratitude.


*Image: The Communion of the Apostles [2] by Luca Giordano, c. 1700 {Museum of Fine Arts Boston}

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.