Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.
Following the sometimes-contentious debate at their spring assembly, bishops have stepped forward to stress they are committed to continuing their dialogue and are moving forward in full unity with the Vatican.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. bishops voted during their spring assembly last week to draft a document on the Eucharist with a section on worthiness to receive Holy Communion — a move that some interpreted as responding to the situation of President Joe Biden, a baptized Catholic who supports abortion and continues to receive the sacrament.
However, many bishops have come forward to clarify that while this section of the planned document will not shy away from addressing the responsibilities of Catholic politicians like Biden and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who promote legal abortion, it will focus on existing Church teaching on worthiness to receive Communion, will not single out any one individual or issue, and will not introduce any sort of new norms or national policy.
After it was disclosed that the matter was under consideration, there was debate leading up to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spring assembly.
In May, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, cautioned USCCB president Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles against crafting “a national policy” on worthiness to receive Communion, “given its possibly contentious nature,” suggesting the debate “would best be framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful, rather than only one category of Catholics.”
During the assembly itself, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine that wrote the outline of the document and will be drafting it, advised the document would not set out national policy and was never “about any one individual or about any one category of sinful behavior; rather, it would bring heightened awareness among the faithful of the need to be to conformed to the Eucharist.”
A vocal minority of bishops nonetheless pushed back on drafting the document, including Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who said it would be interpreted as aimed at politicians like Biden, and he didn’t know “how we get around that.”
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego said the proposal “would make the denial of the Eucharist a significant element of our teaching office in contemporary society,” resulting in the sacrament being “weaponized” in political battles. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., who oversees the archdiocese where President Biden resides, argued for delay in drafting a document so the bishops could reach greater “unity” on the issue.
Other bishops, however, pointed out the scandal to the faithful of not clarifying Catholic teaching on the Eucharist at a time when there is confusion.
Bishop Donald DeGrood of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said some in his diocese are “scandalized that the U.S. bishops haven’t come out yet with something clear” and that the document would be “reaffirming the beautiful faith that God has entrusted to us.” Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, head of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, called it a “particularly important moment” to speak on the Eucharist and highlighted the president’s backing of taxpayer funding of abortion, saying he’s “doing the most aggressive thing we’ve ever seen in terms of this attack on life when its most innocent.” He called Catholic politicians to “integrity” on the matter.
Ultimately, the bishops approved drafting the document by a decisive 3-1 margin, in a 168 to 55 vote, with six abstaining.
Shortly after the outcome was announced on June 18, pro-abortion Catholic politicians responded aggressively. Sixty House Democrats who are baptized Catholics and support abortion released a “statement of principles” asking the Church to “not move forward and deny this holiest of all sacraments, the source and the summit of the whole work of the gospel, over one issue.”
Media outlets like The New York Times, CNN, and NPR framed the vote as “targeting Biden,” a “potential rebuke” of the president, and a vote to “rethink Communion rules.” The New York Times also framed it as a “divergence” from Pope Francis, claiming the U.S. bishops “flouted” a “remarkably explicit letter from the Vatican in May urging it to avoid the vote,” in reference to the letter from Cardinal Ladaria.
But while Cardinal Ladaria’s letter cautioned against establishing a “national policy” on Communion, the bishops drafting the document have repeatedly emphasized that that is not what the document will do and was never their intent.
In a post-assembly interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Bishop Rhoades said he was “disappointed in that erroneous interpretation” that they were at odds with the Vatican. “As bishops, we are committed to teaching in communion with the pope.” He added that the committee “will be in consultation with the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during this process since this will be a teaching document on the Eucharist.”
On June 21, the USCCB released a question-and-answer sheet about the vote, clarifying that “the bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion” and noting that “the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.”
They said that “there will be no national policy on withholding Communion from Catholic politicians” as part of the document and added that the Vatican did not urge against drafting the document, saying, “The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation,” and “collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.”
Russell Shaw, a Catholic author who served as secretary for public affairs for the U.S. bishops from 1969 to 1987, told the Register that the bishops’ vote to move forward with the document has been widely misunderstood, and it will “be a teaching document, not a policy statement or set of norms” and “will not single out politicians or speak of any individual, including the president of the United States.”
He said the intense opposition among some bishops regarding the document likely “arose from their fear that it would be aimed specifically at Biden and/or pro-choice politicians,” but “that clearly is not the case.”
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register that the document will be “a theologically deep and comprehensive presentation of the Catholic belief in the Eucharist and what it means to receive Holy Communion,” and while not focusing on any one issue, it will discuss “serious, great moral evils” and “probably mention a few examples. Abortion, I’m sure, will be one of them, but it’s not the only example.”
While the document will not be “singling out any individuals or even categories of individuals,” he anticipated it will “say something about the special responsibility of Catholics in public life and in all walks of life, not just in politics.”
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, who is a doctor of canon law, told the Register that the document “will examine the underlying theology behind the Church’s discipline regarding Eucharistic consistency.”
He said that since canon laws flow from the teachings of the Church and sacred Scripture, we “really have to go back to the Bible for what is our understanding of this concept of Eucharistic coherence.” He quoted 1 Corinthians 11:27, which states that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord,” calling this “the underlying principle” of the Church’s 2,000-year-old teaching, that “if you are conscious of having committed grave sin, you need to repent, confess your sins to a priest and receive absolution because otherwise, if you are in a state of grave sin and you receive Holy Communion … you’re committing another grave sin: We call it sacrilege.”
He expected the document to look at “the whole spectrum of the grave sins that would be an obstacle to someone receiving Holy Communion,” ranging from politicians who are pro-abortion to people who are divorced and remarried without an annulment to not going to church on Sunday, which is “a grave sin as well.” He said it was not “a question of politicizing the Eucharist,” but of “the integrity of the sacraments.”
Archbishop Cordileone said “those of us who are supporting this document are not politically motivated. We’re not trying to get certain politicians out of office or others in or favoring any political party; we’re looking for conversion of hearts and to protect the integrity of the Eucharist and try to prevent or repair scandal.”
Archbishop Cordileone said there is an “urgency” to speak out on the issue because “no lawmakers are trying to pass laws to make genocide legal or human trafficking legal”; it’s “only abortion and euthanasia that are the issues that are grave evils that are being supported” by lawmakers.
He pointed out that abortion and euthanasia are “mentioned explicitly” in the 2007 Aparecida document of which then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was the lead author. Regarding lawmakers, it stated, “We must adhere to ‘Eucharistic coherence,’ that is, be conscious that they cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged.”
Archbishop Cordileone dismissed the framing that the bishops were flouting the Vatican, pointing out that The New York Times “can’t cite anything where Pope Francis tells us not to do this,” and “on the contrary, we cite the Aparecida document.” He added that Cardinal Ladaria’s letter was “just urging us to be collaborative, and to try to preserve unity, but that was mentioned especially with regard to developing a national policy, which we’re not doing.”
Bishop Paprocki called the narrative about the bishops going against the Vatican “completely false,” adding that Cardinal Ladaria’s letter called for dialogue, and “we approved the drafting of a document that will be the basis for dialogue. It’s my understanding that we’ve added an additional step of dialogue, that there will be some regional meetings of bishops during the summer.”
One of the bishops who spoke against the proposal when it was debated, Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, said in a June 24 statement that it was “heartening” that Archbishop Gomez had committed to organizing regional discussions in order to continue the process of dialogue that had begun at the assembly.
Referencing his service as a USCCB official prior to his appointment as a bishop, Bishop McKnight commented about how healthy episcopal dialogue is facilitated.
“I learned that bishops return home to pray about what took place and discuss further with fellow bishops offline. This allows their views to mature and prepares them for the next set of meetings,” he said. “I have every confidence that this dynamic will continue in this moment, and I have hope that the bishops will find the right way forward with the help of the Holy See.”
Archbishop Cordileone wrote a comprehensive response in First Things to the statement from the 60 House Democrats asking the bishops not to deny Communion over the abortion issue.
He told the Register that the politicians showed “the blindness they have to the evil of this issue. They speak about how they support the dignity of human life, and the importance of family.”
In his response to the letter, the archbishop wrote, “It is rather the statement’s signers who ‘weaponize’ the Eucharist precisely by issuing their public letter. And this suggests a regrettable level of calculated cynicism. The bishops’ motivation is pastoral: the salvation of souls and reparation of scandal. There is nothing punitive in stating and restating the truth of Catholic belief and its implications for authentically Catholic life.”