My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
In this week’s column, I will attempt to shed some light upon the current state of confusion sometimes caused by the secular media and the lack of a prompt response from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) regarding the general impression that the US Bishops are moving toward banning pro-choice elected officials from the reception of Communion.
This issue was so publicized by the media that 60 Catholic members of the United States House of Representatives wrote a letter to the USCCB that the abortion issue should not be the one on which they are denied from receiving Communion. It has become obvious that there exists enough confusion on this issue that it merits some clarification, and I am pleased to do so.
The strategic plan for 2021 to 2024 of the USCCB is one that is focused on the Eucharist. Entitled, Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope, the document uses the Eucharist as the foundation of the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project for two reasons. First, attendance at Mass has been dropping for many years. And, second, answers to the information in recent surveys bring to light that many Catholics are confused about the true presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
Some have said that they do not believe these Sacramental signs are truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Surveying about theological issues is difficult enough; however, there is also concern by bishops and priests about people returning to the Eucharist after an almost 18-month interruption during the Coronavirus pandemic. Many people have been content to view the Mass either live-streamed or on the internet, and to make a spiritual Communion.
I, myself, am not so concerned about the return to the Eucharist, as I believe that people will return to Mass when they feel safe and that the belief in the Eucharist is much deeper than any survey can reveal. It is important, as I have mentioned in my recent pastoral letter on the Eucharist, however, that we address the fact that our culture has influenced the participation in the Sunday Eucharist. And that we must bring back to the consciousness of our Catholic people the centrality of the Eucharist and its benefit for our spiritual lives. This is particularly the case regarding our children, who seem to be absent from the Eucharist in large numbers.
As a step in the direction of fulfilling the strategic plan, the proposal was made by the USCCB Committee on Doctrine to craft a statement that would assist in the development of a revived Eucharistic spirituality. The statement is initially entitled, The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church: Why It Matters. There are three parts to this document: “The Eucharist, A Mystery to Be Believed,” “The Eucharist, A Mystery to be Celebrated,” and “The Eucharist: A Mystery to Be Lived.”
One point in “The Mystery to Be Lived” speaks about Eucharistic Consistency. The outline given states, “A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor. 11:28-29). This refers to the nature of Eucharistic Communion and the problem of serious sin, which would be an impediment for anyone to receive Communion.
It was on this point that conjecture was made that somehow this applies specifically to President Biden because of his new Pro-Choice policies when in the past he was against abortion. Now he seems to be promoting abortion well beyond the limits of his Constitutional responsibility to uphold the law of the land. This may have been the intention in the minds of some bishops; however, certainly not the intention of the statement nor of the common mind of the Bishops’ Conference.
Some history may be helpful to put this into perspective. In a USCCB statement issued in November of 2006, entitled Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily, the issue of worthiness is touched in the document in a very clear and succinct manner. Obviously, because we believe the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, we take the words of St. Paul at their face value; we cannot admit anyone to the Eucharist who has not the proper intention and understanding of what the Eucharist truly is. They must also be free from serious sin. Yes, it is true that the Eucharist remits sin, but serious sin must be remitted by the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The prior statement in 2006 is clearly the policy of the Bishops’ Conference and would be difficult to overturn. At one point in time, there was also a USCCB task force specifically regarding the reception of Communion by elected officials. The task force emphasized there is no substitute for the local bishop’s pastoral judgment and his vital relationships with Catholic public officials in his own diocese.
As the question and answer document (www.usccb.org/eucharistqanda) that was recently issued by the USCCB reminds us, there was no intention to issue a national policy, which cannot be issued by a Bishops’ Conference. The state of an individual’s worthiness for Communion is something that is the primary responsibility of the communicant, not of any individual priest nor Minister of Holy Communion. In the case of widespread scandal, it is the responsibility of the Bishop of the diocese in which an elected official resides to ask the person for a personal meeting to discuss the matter.
What would trigger some type of prohibition against a politician to receive Communion? There would need to be a public scandal. This could be addressed by asking the individual who wishes to receive Communion to remind themselves of observance to Church teaching. There is the famous case of Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans who on April 16, 1962, ordered that the Catholic schools would be integrated. Three Catholic segregationist leaders refused his order and campaigned against that order.
Archbishop Rummel not only denied Communion to them, but he excommunicated them as well. This issue occurred under the old Code of Canon Law. The New Code of Canon Law from 1983 would not have handled the situation in that way, so there would be no general excommunication in that manner. That action by the Archbishop was lauded by many; however, when it comes to the issue of abortion it seems that people are more reticent on the belief that the Church has the authority to prohibit anyone from receiving Communion if they believe in the unlimited right of abortion. This, itself, is another matter which would take some time to explain.
The denial of Communion is a Canonical issue which I can attempt to explain in some summary fashion. There is the famous Canon 915 which states, “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately preserving in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” To get to that point, there are many issues. Excommunication for the sin of abortion is automatic, however, as stated in Canon 1398, “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”
This means that it is an automatic excommunication in all matters of sacramental participation. It is incurred by the person themselves and, generally is not declared. The qualification for someone to incur this, however, is in a sense very limited: ignorance of the law, for example, would excuse a person, and if a person procures an abortion before the age of 16, they also would not be under this prohibition. There are several other excusing circumstances, any of which would preclude the application of the penalty of excommunication, which is a “medicinal” penalty, meaning it is intended to bring about the person’s repentance and conversion.
This is not the case with elected officials. They are not directly responsible for the sin of abortion even though they support legal abortion. Although indirectly, they are making abortions possible and they do bear some moral responsibility. Whereas, if the elected official is a practicing Catholic, they should do whatever they can to lessen the evil of abortion in a particular country. Another factor that is very important, is that we can never judge the conscience of another person. Conscience is the inviolate right of the individual.
Hopefully,the conscience is well-formed and understanding the issues that need to be discerned in performing an act. Excommunication would only be incurred after a person has been duly warned and instructed regarding the error of their ways. And then only may a Bishop act in prohibiting a person from the reception of Communion.
And so, in no way would a statement of the US Bishops’ Conference prohibit the President of the United States or 60 Catholic Members of Congress from receiving the Eucharist, as has been intimated by the secular press. The concern of the US Bishops is the centrality of the Eucharist for the life of the Church. And that those who approach the Eucharist must be aware that it is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, something that we take very seriously.
To return to the sequence of events, before this June’s meeting of the Bishops, the president of the USCCB, Archbishop José Gomez, received a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, S.J., Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In his letter, the Cardinal outlined the procedure that the Bishops might follow in discussing the matter of politicians and the reception of Communion. And Cardinal Ladarai suggested what has come to be known as “Synodality”, meaning that those discussing an issue should come to a consensus before they issue any statement on that issue. This is in contrast to the parliamentary procedure system where majority or plurality would win a particular argument. Fortunately, the USCCB has followed the parliamentary model for the most part in order to facilitate its many statements.
Unfortunately, however, as the world becomes more complex, this model does not seem to fit the work of the Church. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has made this very clear as he has called a Synod on the issue of Synodality and has asked each parish and diocese to have Synods discussing various issues that are yet to be sent to us. These individual parish and diocesan Synods will culminate in the worldwide Synod for the Church. Perhaps our methods need to change so that we better understand each other, our motivations and that we do not model our lives after the current political system in the United States which seems to be in constant deadlock and produces little progress for the common good.
How important it is that we see things in perspective, and that we not come to quick judgments regarding the motivation of the Bishops of the United States, that they have entered into the political realm and are supporting one particular political party or another. The concern is always for the moral good that we are charged to protect. Public morality in a pluralistic society is, indeed, a difficult subject to discuss. Everyone has different opinions.
Unfortunately, the common opinion of today is, “As long as it doesn’t bother me, what do I care if someone else does this or that?” This has led to many moral evils being accepted as common practice. Obviously, a pluralistic society is based on the Separation of Church and State. The Separation of Church and State does not mean that religion and morality are excluded from participation in the open forum of a society. It is obvious that others of different values participate and there is no reason why the Church, because it holds religious values, should be eliminated from the public forum, proposing the moral good that it wishes to protect. St. John Paul II always said that the Church never imposes, it proposes. And we propose what we believe. In a pluralistic society, we will not always prevail. This is clearly a problem we face on the issue of abortion, although our work against the evil of abortion must continue.
The Bishops of the United States have truly put out into the deep waters of public morality, and also, at the same time, the mystery of the Eucharist. It is not easy to explain mysteries. Mysteries are matters that we believe and do not have a full explanation.
When it comes to public morality, however, we stand on more stable ground, understanding that there is objective right and wrong, which does not depend on public opinion or even long-standing laws approved by our own Supreme Court. The first is that the US Bishops have not entered into partisan politics. It has never been our intention to do so. If this seems to be the case to some, it is a wrong impression that has been given; perhaps by our own reluctance to quickly quell journalistic conjecture.
Recently, we celebrated Independence Day, and we recognized the greatness of our country where everyone in a democratic society has an opportunity to express their opinion. And none should ever be silenced because they express an opinion against the majority. At the same time, the rightness of the position of a person or a group, hopefully, can be judged fairly and given a hearing. Although no conclusion may be reached, this is what the essence of democracy is all about. This is why our Nation was founded, where the Separation of Church and State does not mean the exclusion of religion from societal life.