Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, smiles Nov. 16, 2020, at the USCCB headquarters in Washington during the bishops' virtual fall meeting. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

When U.S. bishops meet virtually next week, they are expected to vote on at least nine items, and while new pastoral frameworks on marriage and youth could generate some discussion, most eyes will be focused on a controversial vote related to the Eucharist that some fear politicizes Communion by taking aim at the nation’s second Catholic president.

Earlier this year, Bishop Kevin Rhoades, the chair of the doctrine committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, took the first steps in a process that could result in the bishops adopting a formal statement pertaining to “Eucharistic consistency.” According to a draft of the proposal, which was distributed to U.S. bishops along with a memo from the conference’s president, Archbishop José Gomez, on May 22, the proposed statement is a response to both a strategic plan that focuses on catechism about Communion as well as recommendations from a working group Archbishop Gomez created following President Joe Biden’s election last November. Mr. Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president, supports access to abortion, which the church condemns.

Most eyes will be focused on a controversial vote related to the Eucharist that some fear politicizes Communion by taking aim at the nation’s second Catholic president.

“The statement will be addressed to all Catholics,” the proposal reads, though it notes it would also “include the theological foundation for the Church’s discipline concerning the reception of Holy Communion and a special call for those Catholics who are cultural, political, or parochial leaders to witness the faith.”

In late April, Archbishop Gomez informed the Vatican that the bishops’ conference planned to draft a document related to the Eucharist. Plans for the vote were made public in April, when Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., who chairs the U.S.C.C.B.’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, told The Associated Press it was necessary to rebuke President Biden over his support for abortion rights. In early May, Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria, S.J., the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a letter to Archbishop Gomez in which he urged U.S. bishops to proceed slowly and to seek unity on the topic.

“The congregation notes that such a policy, given its possibly contentious nature, could have the opposite effect and become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United States,” Cardinal Ladaria wrote.

Nearly 70 bishops signed a letter dated May 13 asking Archbishop Gomez to delay the discussion about the document until bishops are able to meet in person.

Nearly 70 bishops signed a letter dated May 13 asking Archbishop Gomez to delay the discussion.

“The serious nature of these issues—especially the imperative to forge substantive unity—makes it impossible to address them productively in the fractured and isolated setting of a distance meeting,” reads the one-page letter urging a delay on the vote, which was signed initially by four U.S. cardinals, including Washington, D.C., Cardinal Wilton Gregory.

But on May 22, Archbishop Gomez distributed a memo to all U.S. bishops informing them that the vote would take place in June. His memo noted that the proposal followed established protocols, which have been in place for decades.

Next week’s meeting will be the second time the U.S.C.C.B. shifted their twice-yearly national gatherings to virtual formats because of the coronavirus pandemic. They are expected to meet in person again this November.

Consensus culture in jeopardy?

Thomas Reese, S.J., a columnist for Religion News Service and a former editor in chief of America, said the dust-up shows, in a way, that “the process is working,” as the anticipated vote is not to accept a new teaching document about Communion but to begin a process of drafting a document. But at the same time, the public back-and-forth shows that the bishops’ conference is “quite divided” on the issue.

“The culture of the conference in the past was consensus, consensus, consensus,” Father Reese said. He said a repeated message from Pope Francis and the Vatican to U.S. bishops in recent years has been one focused on the same idea: building consensus before moving ahead on controversial items.

“That doesn’t mean unanimity,” Father Reese said. “But nor does it mean a simple majority vote or even a two-thirds vote, from their way of thinking.”

Without unity, he said, the Vatican fears the impact division among bishops would have on the church’s ability to teach.

“The bottom line is that the Vatican does not like public disagreements among the bishops, because it cracks the image of the united magisterium that speaks with one voice and knows what it’s doing,” he said.

“The bottom line is that the Vatican does not like public disagreements among the bishops, because it cracks the image of the united magisterium that speaks with one voice and knows what it’s doing.”

Father Reese said he believes that even some bishops who are otherwise strongly committed to the pro-life cause are reluctant to pick battles with Catholic politicians who are pro-choice. And that causes him to wonder if the backers of the proposed document would be able to muster the required two-thirds vote to accept the document should they win the vote next week to begin drafting it.

And even if the conference does eventually accept a document, if it is seen as attempting to bind individual bishops to make decisions about who is eligible to receive Communion in their dioceses, Rome may intervene.

“The answer from Rome has been pretty much consistent, that this is a decision that’s up to the local bishop,” Father Reese said. “The people who want a national policy are in serious trouble up against that kind of barrier.”

Plus, he said, Vatican leaders are wary of the awkward dynamics that could be at play as a result of such a document.

“Biden could go visit the pope in Rome and go to Communion there, but not be able to go to Communion in the States,” he said. “This is not the headline that the church needs.”

One of the backers of moving ahead with a vote, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, spoke to America and acknowledged the possibility of a Catholic politician being barred from Communion in specific dioceses.

“There is that downside that it could create some confusion if they’re receiving in one place and not in another,” he said. Still, he said it is important that “a bishop in his diocese, that his decision has to be respected.”

While much of the conversation about the proposed statement has centered on its potential impact on Mr. Biden, the bishops backing the document say its true aim is to address a breakdown in catechesis when it comes to understanding the church’s teaching on the Eucharist.

“In light of recent surveys, it is clear that there is a lack of understanding among many Catholics about the nature and meaning of the Eucharist.”

Recent polls show the church’s teaching on the Eucharist—Catholics believe bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ—is not well understood by ordinary believers.

“In light of recent surveys, it is clear that there is a lack of understanding among many Catholics about the nature and meaning of the Eucharist,” the doctrine committee’s proposal states. While it did not appear to link to any studies, in 2019 a report from the Pew Research Center found that just half of U.S. Catholics understand the church’s teaching on the Eucharist. Last November, the bishops’ conference approved a three-year strategic plan aimed at better teaching the church’s beliefs about the Eucharist.

[Explainer: Why the Eucharist is confusing for many Catholics — and survey researchers]

An outline of the proposed statement shows that a future statement may contain three sections. One would reiterate the church’s theological beliefs about the Eucharist while another would highlight the role the Eucharist plays in the life of the church. The third section appears to concern the contentious issue of restricting public figures who disagree with church teaching from receiving Communion. It is unlikely to name any political figures but could articulate guidelines about when a political leader may be denied Communion.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings, the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said she is unsure what drafting such a document would accomplish beyond “pushing people farther away from the church.”

Ms. Cummings said that the church in the United States has long grappled with engaging the broader American culture while remaining in communion with Rome.

This debate about Communion and abortion, she said, “is about American politics.”

“I do think there’s more Biden could do to say, ‘Look we’re on the same side when it comes to trying to reduce the number abortions,’” Ms. Cummings said. At the same time, the bishops’ “outsize focus on abortion and abortion politics just mystifies me when there are so many other critical issues that the Catholic bishops could be collaborating on with Biden, who could be the best thing to happen to the U.S. Catholic Church in decades. And they’re squandering that.”

The bishops’ “outsize focus on abortion and abortion politics just mystifies me when there are so many other critical issues that the Catholic bishops could be collaborating on with Biden.”

She said there is potential for bishops to collaborate with the administration on immigration reform, climate change and refugee resettlement, but she worries they are missing out on those opportunities because of the debate about his worthiness to receive Communion.

“He’s the most visible American Catholic in the world,” Ms. Cummings said. “Why aren’t we thinking about that as a potential asset as a way for Catholicism to actually make a difference in American politics?”

A call for a clear teaching document

It is that visibility that makes Mark Brumley see the need for a clear teaching document about Communion and Catholic political leaders.

Mr. Brumley, the head of Ignatius Press, said he does not believe bishops are seeking to create “a targeted, politicized weapon” to use against Mr. Biden or other Catholic political leaders, but instead seeking “to address the ongoing pastoral problem of Catholics not appreciating sufficiently what it means to participate in the Eucharist, what it means to be a Eucharistic disciple of Jesus.” He said such a document could alienate some Catholics, but he believes bishops must tackle this issue.

“Any time teachers in the church present Catholic social teaching, there is some risk that people who don’t agree with that teaching or who don’t understand that teaching will not like it,” he said.

“Any time teachers in the church present Catholic social teaching, there is some risk that people who don’t agree with that teaching or who don’t understand that teaching will not like it.”

At least four bishops have come out in support of moving forward with the virtual vote on the proposed statement, including Bishop Michael Olson of Dallas-Fort Worth, who sits on the doctrine committee, and Archbishop Cordileone.

Archbishop Cordileone, who has previously issued a public statement suggesting that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi should not present herself for Communion, said in a May 25 statement posted to the archdiocese’s website that he is “deeply grieved by the rising public acrimony among bishops.”

Archbishop Cordileone said that the proposed document should not be seen as “a national policy” on who can take Communion but instead as “a resource for bishops” to use when concrete situations arise. When asked if he believed there is consensus among bishops to move ahead with drafting such a document, he said that there is disagreement but added that he believes “a strong majority” is in favor.

Archbishop Cordileone said that the proposed document should not be seen as “a national policy” on who can take Communion but instead as “a resource for bishops” to use when concrete situations arise.

Another bishop who released a statement in response to the letter to Archbishop Gomez, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., criticized fellow bishops and Mr. Biden, whom he called “a Catholic who promotes the evils of abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism.”

In 2016, Bishop Rhoades, now the head of the doctrine committee, publicly criticized the University of Notre Dame for honoring then-Vice President Joe Biden with its Laetare Medal, which that year was also awarded to former Speaker of the House John Boehner. The bishop said Mr. Biden’s support for abortion access and same-sex marriage made him an unsuitable choice for the prestigous recognition.

Archbishop Cordileone said that he supports emphasizing in a future statement that abortion is the “pre-eminent” issue when it comes to worthiness to receive Communion—echoing language the bishops adopted in 2019 for their voting guide following a contentious debate—but added that there are other Catholic teachings that Catholic politicians should consider when considering taking Communion. He said that while a document would not name specific political leaders, it could “bring greater attention to the question” of whether Mr. Biden or Ms. Pelosi should receive the Eucharist.

Mr. Biden attends Mass weekly, either at his home parish in Delaware or at Most Holy Trinity parish in Washington, though media is generally not permitted inside the churches. He has spoken publicly about his Catholic faith but has been silent on the latest controversy regarding Communion.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., criticized fellow bishops and Mr. Biden, whom he called “a Catholic who promotes the evils of abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism.”

Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, has previously said he would not deny Mr. Biden Communion; this was also the policy of Bishop Francis Malooly of Wilmington, who retired in April. Bishop Malooly’s successor, Msgr. William E. Koenig, said at a press conference in April that he prays for Mr. Biden daily and is open to a conversation with the president about Communion but did not state his views on whether he would bar a Catholic politician who is pro-choice from receiving the Eucharist. Msgr. Koenig is expected to be installed as bishop on July 13.

Bishop Gerald Kicanas, the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 to 2010, told America he feels it is “unfortunate” that bishops plan to go ahead with a vote on the proposal before being able to meet in person and worries that his fellow bishops are failing to heed Pope Francis’ call for unity among bishops.

“Clearly our conference is not with one voice on this issue,” he said. He agrees that the church must do a better job catechizing believers about the Eucharist and said the controversy surrounding the document is not indicative of disagreement about church teaching on life issues.

“Abortion is not something that any bishop is encouraging or supporting, obviously. I think people are clear on that,” the retired bishop of Tucson said. “But it’s a complex situation in a political society like our own as to how to live out one’s personal discipleship as well as one’s political responsibilities.”

The bishops’ conference included the vote on the proposed statement in a press announcement distributed June 8, but it is possible the item could be delayed.

 

At the beginning of the meeting, bishops will vote to accept the agenda, which requires a simple majority. It is possible that a bishop may make a motion to delay the vote. Should the proposal pass, however, garnering a simple majority, a proposed document would be drafted in the coming months and voted on in November. To accept the statement would require a two-thirds majority.

Regardless of the vote, it is clear that there is not widespread consensus among the bishops when it comes to a path forward on the issue of Communion for Catholic political leaders. And that worries Bishop Kicanas.

“I think the Holy Father has been saying differences are healthy, disagreements are healthy, but division and dispersion are not healthy,” he said. “I hope we won’t become a divided conference. People are asking bishops to become polarized, to choose one side or another. As bishops, we need to resist that. Francis would say it’s a healthy thing there are disagreements. What’s unhealthy is what Christ feared: that there are divisions.”

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