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(THE CONVERSATION) A disagreement between conservative American bishops and the Vatican could be laid bare on June 16 as United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meets amid talk of a growing division in the church over the leadership of Pope Francis.
During the virtual event, the U.S. bishops are expected to approve a motion to begin drafting a “Eucharistic Consistency” document that would exclude Catholic politicians who support abortion rights from receiving Communion.
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If they continue, the bishops will have opened a breach with Pope Francis and the Vatican, who almost asked the bishops not to go ahead with the motion.
They would also put the Catholic Church in the United States into unprecedented territory when it comes to its relationship with the wider Catholic community.
This all stems from a dilemma that President Joe Biden poses to Catholic bishops. Many prominent Roman Catholics in public life – including Democrats such as Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – support the right to abortion. Yet the Roman Catholic Church teaches that abortion is the taking of human life, no different from murder, and a sin so grave that he incurs automatic excommunication. This has led some bishops to worry that a contradictory picture of the Catholic faith is being presented to the public.
Their response is a pastoral statement on “Eucharistic consistency” that would tell Catholics when they should and should not receive Communion. The effect of this document would be to exclude Catholics like Biden and Pelosi from full participation in the church.
Communion, also known as the Eucharist, is the central act of Roman Catholic worshipin which Catholics receive bread and wine which they believe becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
The law of the Church particularly excludes from communion those who are guilty of what is called “manifest grave sin.” This means that no one who has committed a serious sin in a publicly visible way should receive communion.
the the bishops argue that by supporting abortion rights, Democrats like Joe Biden have rendered themselves unfit for communion.
Like a scholar who studies Catholicism in political life, I submit that the proposed pastoral statement reflects existing divisions within the Catholic Church that have been exacerbated by Biden’s election as President. Moreover, it will only serve to widen the gap.
But his political position on abortion clashes with more conservative elements of the Catholic Church. In October 2019, a priest refused to give communion to the then-presidential candidate when he showed up at St. Anthony’s Church in Florence, South Carolina. The priest, who had never met Biden before, told reporters“Any public figure who advocates abortion places themselves outside of church teaching.”
The picture is not as clear as this priest suggests, and the history of the Catholic Church in dealing with Catholic officials is more inconsistent. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, for example, chaired a brutal regime of atrocities and torture known all over the world, yet he received a Catholic burial in 1975, presided over by the Archbishop of Toledo.
Most relevant to the Biden case, Pope John Paul II gave communion in 2001 to the mayor of Rome, Franceso Rutelli, who had campaigned to liberalize abortion laws. Likewise, Pope Benedict XVI gave Communion to Rudolph Giuliani, Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry – all of whom support the right to abortion.
The reason the issue has come up now in the United States seems to have more to do with bishops’ concerns about their waning influence.
Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities and one of the leading figures supporting a pastoral statement on communion, told the Associated Press in April, “Whether intentional or not, [Biden is] trying to usurp our authority.
“He has no authority to teach what it means to be Catholic”, Naumann continued; “It is our responsibility as bishops.”
Naumann may have reason to worry. A 2019 poll found that 63% of American Catholics have lost faith in Catholic bishops because of their ongoing crisis management of sexual abuse.
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For many Catholics, Biden’s portrayal of the Catholic faith as aligning with racial justice, economic justice, climate justice and healthcare justice provides a sharp contrast to bishops mired in scandal and unhappy with trends such as same-sex marriage in American culture.
Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila wrote in mid-April about what he sees as the need to establish “Eucharistic coherence” through a pastoral statement that would indicate when someone like Biden should not show up for communion. It seems many bishops like Aquila see this as the solution to their dilemma over Biden.
But not all bishops agree. About 70 of nearly 250 bishops in the United States have signed a letter urging the episcopal conference to slow down and consider more carefully this pastoral statement and its effects. Yet the vast majority of American bishops are also not discouraged by this letter as they were by the instances of Rome.
Communion “not a price”
This proposal for a document on “Eucharistic coherence” will come before the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops virtual meeting, which will be held from June 16 to 18. But even if a pastoral statement is written, the conference has no power to apply it to a particular bishop. The result would be an incoherent patchwork for each bishop to decide. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington has already indicated he won’t stop Biden from taking communion. As such, the pastoral statement could only serve to underline differences between many American bishops and the pope.
It could also backfire as an attempt to challenge the authority of the American bishops. A pre-election debate on the sincerity of Biden’s Catholicism proved divisive among the faithful. Biden, by baptism and participation in the other sacraments, is Catholic. there is no doubt.
Because it reflects intense divisions in the church, this effort to disqualify the president from the sacraments and the church is, I believe, a threat to the authority of the church today. Nothing that promotes or deepens these divisions will help the bishops or the Catholics they lead. And the growing visibility of the division between the American bishops and the pope is a threat to the church itself.
This is an updated version of a originally published article May 5, 2021.
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