Bishops, Politicians, & Holy Communion

If you’re seeking evidence of how hard it is for the Church to communicate its message in and to our secularized, polarized, hyper-politicized society, consider reactions to the news that the American bishops are thinking of making a statement on Catholic politicians like President Biden who receive communion while backing abortion. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lacks authority to deny communion to Biden or any other abortion supporter. Whether to do that or not is up to local bishops in their own dioceses. But USCCB certainly can speak to the issue. The bishops will discuss developing a statement doing that during their June 16-18 general meeting.

The discussion, which will take place virtually, will have as its background a letter to USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, S.J., prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Replying to a letter Archbishop Gomez had sent him, Cardinal Ladaria said the bishops should dialogue among themselves and with other bishops’ conference facing the same problem—Catholic politicians who back “abortion, euthanasia, or other moral evils”—before they say anything. Even then, he added, deciding what action to take, if any, will remain with individual ordinaries.

Some media chose to see the Ladaria letter as a brake on action by the bishops, but it’s more accurately read as a green light to move ahead cautiously, with indications of how to do that.. 

A few bishops would prefer saying nothing, but most appear disposed to proceed. One who argues for silence, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, cites the danger that the bishops will be misrepresented. “In our society,” he said in a panel discussion earlier this year, a bishops’ statement raising the communion issue would be viewed as “weaponization of the Eucharist…to pummel [politicians like Biden] into submission.”

Bishop McElroy is right—not about the pros and cons of a statement, which is overdue and badly needed, but about misrepresenting the bishops, whether by design or accident. For example: a Religion News Service commentary told the world the bishops’ real aim is to give a hand to Biden’s GOP opponents, an Associated Press story quoted a theology professor who claimed the proposed statement would be payback to unnamed “donors,” and an ultraconservative news site said Cardinal Ladaria was “admonishing” Archbishop Gomez in his letter rather than giving him a conditional go-ahead.

The kindest word for these remarks is obtuse. Think what you will about the advisability of a statement, it’s abundantly clear that the bishops have two things in view here: the good of souls–including the souls of erring Catholic politicians–and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.

Several bishops already have stressed both dimensions in statements of their own. One of them, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, called it “false patience” for bishops to keep quiet while the “slaughter” via abortion continues “with the full endorsement of Catholic politicians under our spiritual care [who] receive Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament.” Telling such people not to receive communion as long as they support abortion is “an obligation and an act of love,” he said.

And so the stage is set for what could be a dramatic debate by the bishops. From their perspective, the issues at stake are profoundly religious, but the media can be expected to stress the political angle. Here’s hoping that, whatever the bishops decide, it  will be interpreted accurately as arising from pastoral concern about an issue not of their choosing. 

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Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, DC. He is the author of more than twenty books and previously served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference.

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