What to read, and why, as Catholic bishops mull plan to deny Biden Holy Communion

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This is a week that could change Catholic life in this country. That is not an exaggeration when you consider what the bishops will be debating.

Barring an intervention from Pope Francis himself, the U.S. bishops will consider, and vote on Thursday, a plan for a document about Holy Communion that includes denying the sacrament to politicians who repeatedly support policies advocating abortion rights. That includes President Joe Biden, only the country’s second Catholic commander in chief ever.  

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will gather virtually for their three-day Spring General Assembly starting tomorrow. The public sessions are available on the USCCB website for all to watch. While the bishops will have a busy agenda ahead of them, the biggest issue — in terms of news coverage — is this question of whether the sacrament of Communion can be denied to Catholic politicians with a history of backing abortion rights.

What can we expect from the news coverage?

This has been an issue that was pushed to the forefront by many bishops following Biden’s election last November. This is an issue that has been covered by both the mainstream press as well as Catholic media. The arguments and decisions made this week will have a lasting impact on Catholicism and those who practice it. The opinions many will form this week will come directly from the coverage they read.

Here is the debate in a nutshell: Some bishops want politicians who identify as Catholic to hold public policy positions that are not at odds with church teaching on abortion, marriage, LGBTQ rights and other issues in moral theology. Others argue that these politicians can hold political positions that clash with the church — while expressing private support for church teachings — and continue to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion.

That this division also happen to match with how these Catholics vote will dominate the coverage. It also comes at a time when the Supreme Court will take up a major abortion rights challenge.

All the factors above will make this something secular newsrooms will care about — more than normal for a meeting of Catholic bishops — along with the Catholic press who give the church’s hierarchy coverage on a daily basis.

Here are two takes on what is at stake.

On the Catholic left, America magazine, in a recent opinion piece, examined the debate and posed a larger question. Here is an excerpt:

It is the question that has vexed Catholics from the moment we first stepped forth onto the shores of this culturally Protestant country. Which comes first: church or country? At the end of the day, that is what we are really talking about. It’s what we are always talking about, whether we know it or not. Think about it: Do U.S. senators question whether an Episcopalian should serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, given that the Episcopal Church in the United States strongly opposes the death penalty? Did anyone ask Justice Elena Kagan during her confirmation hearings whether she could be impartial on the question of Roe v. Wade, considering that the Rabbinical Council of Conservative Judaism is pro-choice? Of course not. Yet questions like these are routinely asked of Roman Catholics. But here’s the thing: They are asked of us because we ask them of ourselves. Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholicism was a matter of public debate mainly because Catholics publicly debated it. Why? Such debates don’t really happen elsewhere in the Catholic world.

On the conservative end of the doctrinal spectrum, The Catholic Thing posed their own questions:

The American bishops will begin their regular June meeting (virtually) the day after tomorrow. High on the agenda: a “Catholic” president who not only flouts teachings on abortion, sex, and marriage but whose administration is hell-bent on curtailing religious liberty when it resists the sexual revolution. Or in formal language: the question of “Eucharistic coherence.” For the uninitiated, this abstract term raises a simple question: Should persons like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and hundreds of others who promote the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents yearly, and give grave public scandal, present themselves to receive Communion?

Both are questions that need answering in news stories. Like a Bingo game, one has to wonder whether certain names, dates and terms will be mentioned by the press when reporting on the issue this week.

In June 2004, for example, now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was accused of intentionally misreading a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who later became Pope Benedict XVI — recommending that Catholic politicians who supported abortion be denied the Eucharist.

Why does that matter? McCarrick became the chief architect of the current policy that turns a blind eye to Catholic politicians. McCarrick, it should be noted, was defrocked in 2019 over abuse allegations that stretched back decades with teenage boys and seminarians.

I don’t expect for McCarrick’s name to come up — especially in mainstream news coverage that veers to the left on issues of this kind.

Another issue revolves around the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Does it address this issue? If so, will the news coverage feature what it says?

Turns out it does. The key section of the document talks about “scandal” and “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” This same passage was quoted by former Archbishop Charles Chaput in First Things in the immediate aftermath of Biden’s election. Don’t expect many mainstream journalists to quote either the catechism or put in a call to Chaput for a statement.

As the debate comes to the forefront in the coming days and intensifies once again, here are three news sources I’ll be reading this week and the reasons why:

The Pillar

I’ve lauded this Catholic news start-up in this space before. The journalists here (the founders are both canon lawyers, as well) offer news coverage and analysis that’s factual and insightful. That’s not something everyone in the media can claim these days.

Case in point: The Pillar published a piece on June 10 under the headline “What the USCCB already teaches about ‘Eucharistic coherence’” that provides readers with the type of context that too many outlets leave out.

Here’s how the piece opened:

As the U.S. bishops’ conference prepares to discuss “Eucharistic coherence” at their annual spring assembly, very little attention has been given to what the conference has already said on the subject.

In November 2006, two years after a USCCB discussion on the Eucharist and pro-choice politicians, the conference approved “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper,” a 23-page document “On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist.”

The document was approved in a 201-24 vote, with two bishops abstaining.

“Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper” is a catechetical document, which outlines Catholic doctrine on the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, the significance of the Eucharist in the life of the Church, and the importance of preparing to receive the Eucharist worthily.

The document identifies that those “no longer in the state of grace because of mortal sin” should abstain from receiving the Eucharist until they are “reconciled with God and the Church.”

Three days earlier, they reported on the internal squabbles among the bishops heading into this week — including the names of specific bishops, archbishops and cardinals who had taken stands. It was a scoop by The Pillar and certainly a glimpse of more to come from them over the coming days.

Here’s the key part of the news story:

The letter and signatory list, sent May 13 to bishops’ conference president Archbishop Jose Gomez, urged that “all Conference wide discussion and committee work on the topic of Eucharistic worthiness and other issues raised by the Holy See be postponed until the full body of bishops is able to meet in person.”

“The serious nature of these issues — especially the imperative to forgo substantive unity — makes it impossible to address them productively in the fractured and isolated setting of a distance meeting,” the letter’s signatories wrote.

The text of the letter, obtained by The Pillar, together with the list of signatories, was independently confirmed by sources at the Vatican Secretariat of State and in the chanceries of several U.S. dioceses. It was transmitted to Gomez by email.

The letter addressed a vote scheduled for the USCCB’s upcoming June virtual assembly on the possibility of drafting a teaching document on “Eucharistic coherence.” If the bishops vote that a committee should draft the document, its actual text would be up for a vote of approval at a future meeting of the USCCB, at the earliest in November 2021.

The Pillar does a wonderful job presenting both sides of the debate and providing plenty of historical context. I urge all journalists covering this contentious issue to read their posts and sign up for their email newsletters.

National Catholic Reporter

The Catholic doctrinal left depends on the National Catholic Reporter and remains influential among a great number of prelates and parishioners within the U.S. church.

NCR has also been all over the Communion issue. In a June 10 story, they published a news piece that framed the controversy this way: the leading bishops backing the Communion ban have had a history of opposing Pope Francis’ approach to pastoral life

This is the key section:

When Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the disgraced former papal nuncio to the United States, released an unprecedented and soon discredited letter in 2018 alleging Pope Francis’ complicity in covering up for former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s history of abuse, San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone came to Viganò’s defense.

Despite Viganò’s shocking call for Pope Francis’ resignation, Cordileone was joined by a number of U.S. bishops who bolstered the testimony of the former nuncio. Among them, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted and Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, all of whom issued personal statements or gave interviews echoing Cordileone’s praise of Viganò as a man of faith and integrity.

Today, those same bishops are also driving the controversial efforts aimed at pressing the U.S. bishops’ conference to draft a document that will have far sweeping effects to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support pro-choice legislation. When the U.S. bishops meet virtually June 16-18, they will vote on whether to proceed with drafting a document on the “meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the church,” a proposal championed through a series of pastoral letters, media appearances, personal articles and social media campaigns by the aforementioned bishops.

Yet the manner in which the debate among the U.S. prelates has played out — and the medium in which the body of bishops will hold this debate — has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, including by longtime former staffers at the U.S. bishops’ conference and high-ranking Vatican officials who see the rushed debate as a stark departure from Pope Francis’ call for dialogue.

They had further made the point in an editorial on June 3 under the headline, “Why we support the bishops’ plan to deny Communion to Biden.”

Don’t led the headline fool you. This is their take:

We say: Just do it.

Just do it, so that if there happens to be a Catholic remaining who is not convinced that the bishops’ conference, as it stands today, has become completely irrelevant and ineffectual, they will be crystal clear about that reality after the conference leaders move forward with this patently bad idea.

Despite plans to bury the real reason for the document in language about “eucharistic coherence,” this move is clearly aimed at Biden and the practice of his faith. Although Biden has said he is personally opposed to abortion, he has, as a politician, supported his party’s stance on the issue, including the most recent proposal to remove the decades-old ban on federal funding for the procedure.

The bishops’ plan is a terrible idea, first and foremost, because such excessive attention to the worthiness of those receiving Communion is contrary to a proper, traditional theology of the sacraments, which sees them as “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” as Pope Francis said in Evangelii Gaudium. (And don’t let speeches about how no one believes in the Real Presence anymore sway you, as those pontificators will likely be quoting a flawed survey. Most Catholics still know to genuflect when they cross in front of the tabernacle.)  

Indeed, NCR could help set part of the agenda this week. Stay tuned.

The New York Times

One of the most influential newspapers in America, The New York Times remains a news outlet that sets much of the agenda for other news organizations. The major TV networks take their cues from the Times, shaping how stories are framed, and what’s reported there is fodder for the 24-hour cable television networks such as Fox News and CNN.

The Times, as has been noted in this space many times, has its own narratives as it pertains to the Catholicism as represented by Biden. It is one that’s often at odds with the catechism and what traditional Catholics believe. Nonetheless, this is a newspaper that continues to be read by many Americans — particularly those who hold positions of power — and has an enormous influence in our everyday culture.

The newspaper just ran a news story about the Vatican warning “conservative American bishops to hit the brakes on their push to deny communion to politicians supportive of abortion rights.”

Here’s the key takeaway:

But despite the remarkably public stop sign from Rome, the American bishops are pressing ahead anyway and are expected to force a debate on the communion issue at a remote meeting that starts on Wednesday.

Some leading bishops, whose priorities clearly aligned with former President Donald J. Trump, now want to reassert the centrality of opposition to abortion in the Catholic faith and lay down a hard line — especially with a liberal Catholic in the Oval Office.

The vote threatens to shatter the facade of unity with Rome, highlight the political polarization within the American church and set what church historians consider a dangerous precedent for bishops’ conferences across the globe.

The key: The Times, like most mainstream publications, will frame the debate in terms of politics, not church doctrine.

For example, the bishops aren’t simply pro-life and seeking what’s called “Eucharistic coherence” — but instead are “conservatives” who are “aligned with” Trump. These some bishops, however, disagree with the former president when it comes to immigration reform and the use of the death penalty. The news story did not present both sides. Instead, it only offered opinions for those who support the view that politicians who are also pro-abortion rights should be able to continue to receive Communion.

While readers should take a look at its news pages, it is also important to keep a close watch at its opinion pages. Op-Ed columnist Ross Douthat, who NCR called “a member of the Catholic conservative crowd” earlier this year, is likely to chime in post-conference.

Otherwise, look for guest essay to voice what the Times believes. Two weeks ago, it ran a piece by Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice and a former columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.

This is what the piece argued:

I have spent nearly 20 years of my life as a Catholic theologian, lay minister and activist struggling against these insidious papal teachings. I was the last person, I thought, who would ever be vulnerable to John Paul II’s attempt to limit women’s power and potential with theological gymnastics. Yet I still struggled to shake that deeply ingrained notion that I was throwing away God’s most important gift.

Even among those of us who boldly proclaim our dissent from Catholic teachings on abortion, the church still holds great power. That power has been on display since President Biden, a devout Catholic, won the 2020 election. The U.S. bishops immediately fell back on the trope of threatening to deny him and other elected officials, like the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, access to communion because they support abortion rights. Though these punishments have long existed as idle warnings, the issue recently escalated: The U.S. bishops plan to vote at their next assembly in June on whether they can formalize this response. To its credit, even the Vatican, under Pope Francis, has expressed reservations about the American bishops’ latest maneuver.

The U.S. bishops’ abuse of the sacraments as a tool of intimidation has major political repercussions. It’s no accident that Mr. Biden still has not uttered the word “abortion” since his election and his administration often uses euphemisms like “women’s health care,” “choice,” “bodily autonomy” and “reproductive rights.”

This is unfortunate, because Mr. Biden is in good company. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey affirmed that 68 percent of U.S. Catholics don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. And Catholic Americans get abortions at the same rate as other Americans.

It should be noted that Pew isn’t the only polling firm that has posed such questions. A poll released Tuesday found that, among Catholics who attend Mass regularly, the vast majority say Catholic politicians who take policy positions contrary to church teaching “create confusion” among the faithful. The poll, conducted by CRC Research on behalf of the advocacy group CatholicVote, found that 83% of Catholics who regularly attend Mass believe this.

That’s one of the main thrusts of this ongoing debate that journalists need to be keenly aware of: political views of American Catholics and how they contrast what the church teaches when it comes to abortion and other moral issues. There are Catholics who attend Mass regularly and those who are “cultural” and rarely go to church (see this tmatt post on this topic). There are ex-Catholics, as well.

Distinguishing between these different kinds of Catholics will be an important task for journalists this week and the failure to do so could warp the coverage.

As for the bishops, it will be a week that could change the U.S. church forever, with bishops taking public stands that will be remembered by people in pews.

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