The work of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has once again made headlines, as members, after expressing sharp differences between themselves in an online meeting, approved a plan, published last Friday , to write a “teaching document” on the role of the Eucharist and their relationship with Catholic politicians who support the right to abortion, especially President Joe Biden.
The plan raised the dramatic prospect that the nation’s second Catholic president, a devout Sunday practitioner, would not be allowed to come to the altar and receive the Eucharist – the central act of Mass, which represents the believer’s communion with Christ and the Church. The plan has been interpreted by the press and by the bishops themselves as a sign of deep divisions in American Catholicism; he plunged the conference “into the very heart of the toxic partisan struggle” of electoral politics, as Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark put it. And it has left many Catholics in awe of how come the Church here is putting President Biden in the dock, as Catholic officials in London last month abruptly cleared Westminster Cathedral for the wedding. of two baptized Catholics, twice divorced Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his living lover, who bore their child last year?
The immediate motive of the American bishops is clear: they want to send the message that to be Catholic is to oppose legal abortion. The battle, however, is more than that. This is a sign of the deep concern among traditionalists about the stature of the Church and its leaders in public life – a concern similar to that of white working-class Trumpists about their stature in a changing American society. . But it is also, strangely, a sign of openness: it suggests that under Pope Francis the hierarchy of the Church is finally revealing itself as a group of men with different points of view, shaped by alliances and compromises, and led by a pope who has renounced the papal prerogative to end conflicts by authoritarian means.
The last time the bishops’ conference garnered so much attention was in February 2004, when prelates released a report on sexual abuse by priests – two years after allegations of widespread abuse and a official cover-ups in the Archdiocese of Boston have become a national matter. scandal. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, of Belleville, Illinois, who was the conference president, presented the report in terms suggesting that the scandal was over. “I assure you that the known offenders are not in the ministry,” he said. “The terrible story recorded here is history.” the Time printed his remarks on the first page.
That same year, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and Catholic, was his party’s alleged candidate for the White House, against President George W. Bush. As with Biden today, traditionalists, led by Raymond Burke, the Archbishop of St. Louis, raised the possibility of denying the Eucharist to Kerry because he supported the legal right to abortion. In June, the bishops adopted a proposal to restrict politicians’ access to communion on this basis. After moderate internal debate – and a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, DC, on the subject – the conference decided to leave the issues in the hands of the local bishops, instead than approaching it as a group. But, in the process, public attention shifted away from the bishops’ handling of sexual abuse and their oversight of the Mass and the sacraments.
The pattern is repeating itself now, with crucial differences. Once again, the bishops have been dishonored by allegations of clerical sexual abuse: this time multiple acts of child abuse committed from the 1970s by McCarrick himself, and detailed in a report commissioned by the Vatican , whose publication last November led his eventual successor — Wilton Gregory, now a cardinal — to speak about the “dark corners of our church that I am deeply ashamed of and deeply angry about — again.” (McCarrick, who was defrocked in 2019, denied the allegations.) In what may be seen as yet another attempt to reclaim lost authority, traditionalists once again argue that support for the right to abortion makes politicians “unworthy” to receive the Eucharist. But, this time, the politician who is at the center of this effort is the president, not a candidate. This time, the Pope is not Benedict but Francis, a moderate whose reluctance to join the cultural wars leaves traditionalists upset. And, this time, the traditionalists win.
Their campaign began with the formation of a task force not long after Biden defeated Donald Trump, whom traditionalist Catholic leaders openly wooed as a recent opponent of abortion and appointed as conservative judges. The situation worsened on the day of the investiture, when the current president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, issued a statement denouncing the new president’s plans to promote the Abortion rights and “moral plagues” Pope Francis sent Biden a congratulatory telegram. Gomez’s statement sparked an unprecedented open disagreement in the hierarchy this spring, as bishops began to voice their own positions, in the press and on social media. Bishop Robert McElroy, of San Diego, writing in Jesuit magazine America, “warned against letting the sacrament be ‘militarized’,” citing Pope Francis’ 2013 statement that the Eucharist is “not a price for the perfect but a potent medicine and food for the the weaks “. Meanwhile, Charles Chaput, Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia, using the “rights speech” that Tories despised, wrote in the Tory newspaper First things that when people like Joe Biden receive Communion “not only do they put their own souls in grave danger, but – just as gravely – they also violate the rights of Catholics who seek to live their faith authentically.”
Cardinal Gregory – who now, as Archbishop of Washington, is the president’s local bishop – has made it clear that he will not exclude Biden from the sacrament, so the argument is somewhat academic . (Biden, at a press conference last Friday, said of the proposal, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”) But it’s an argument that traditionalists are determined to keep going. In May, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Vatican Doctrinal Office, sent a letter to the president of the conference recommending that the bishops undertake a “deep and peaceful dialogue” among themselves and with Catholic politicians. , rather than putting the question to a vote at the June meeting. They put it to a vote anyway and, after a few hours of grueling virtual debate, approved the expected document, 168-55, with six abstentions. Traditionalists accused moderates of trying to filibuster, with a call to wait for an in-person discussion at their next meeting in November. Moderates cautioned traditionalists against drifting and overstretching the mission. The prelates on either side accused those on the other of playing politics with the stuff of faith.