U.S. Catholic bishops will vote this week on their first position paper on Communion since 2006. And while the document will likely sidestep Catholic culture wars by not explicitly mentioning President Joe Biden or other abortion-rights-supporting Catholic politicians, the meeting will put on display important divisions that have been simmering for decades.
Hundreds of bishops from around the country started gathering at the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott Monday for prayer and closed executive session, the first time they have been together in person for two years due to the pandemic. They usually meet in person each June and November.
While they will elect new officers and pass new guidance for dioceses on responsible investing, the most-watched item on their agenda is one that appears to have galloped off track – or gone exactly where it needed to go, depending on one’s perspective.
They will begin Tuesday discussing a proposed draft of a document about the meaning of the Eucharist, or Communion, the core of Catholic worship, and will vote Wednesday whether to approve it. The document comes after many years of bishops discussing how to revive Catholics’ understanding of and practice of Communion, but the decision to go ahead now with the document came only after Biden’s election and concern among some about the image of a pro-abortion-rights president receiving the sacrament every week.
For the past two years there has been discussion about what was needed when, with some bishops insisting Biden was causing scandal and then the Vatican weighing in that the men should tread carefully and have “serene dialogue” together, and not create a national policy that overemphasized specific sins or specific categories of people.
A draft that leaked earlier this month did not mention Biden or abortion.
While some bishops urged holding off on any vote or document, saying the process had become corrupted by partisan divisions and abortion politics, this June the bishops voted overwhelming to have the conference’s doctrine committee proceed with drafting a document. Supporters said the need for Eucharistic revival was too great.
Starting Tuesday, Catholics will get a clearer sense of what their bishops think might bring people closer to the sacrament.
Monsignor Kevin Irwin, the former longtime dean of the Catholic University School of Theology and Religious Studies and an expert on liturgy and the sacraments, said the discussions the bishops will have this week will reflect several divisions, including emphasis.
Pope John Paul II continually stated how “we need to be worthy to receive Communion,” and the importance of not taking Communion in other Christian churches. Receiving Communion at Catholic Mass, the late pope said, “reflects a common union in faith,” Irwin summarized. Pope Francis’s emphasis, Irwin said, is “the Eucharist as food for the sinful and healing for us all. This is a pontificate that emphasizes mercy. He stresses that the Eucharist is a means for deeper Communion among and within Churches.”
Pope Francis said recently that he has never denied anyone Communion.
“I suspect bishops will line up on either side,” Irwin said.
In the Catholic church, each bishop is the decision-maker for his diocese, or region, answering only to the pope – not to his fellow bishops or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which is more like an association and has no authority on its own. However, it’s the closest thing U.S. Catholics have to a national consensus among their clerical leaders.
The Church leaves the decision about Communion to the conscience of individual Catholics, in partnership with their Catholic education, their pastor and bishop.
American Catholics don’t mirror their bishops. A Pew Research poll earlier this year found 29% of Catholics feel Biden’s support for abortion rights disqualify him from Communion. Responses were divided by political persuasion, with just 11% of Democratic-leaning Catholics say Biden should be denied while 55% of Republican-leaning Catholics did.
“I believe that American Catholics are not really interested in whether politicians who allow abortion should be allowed to receive Communion,” Irwin said. He thinks their focus is on recovering from the clergy sex abuse scandal, seeing unsympathetic responses from bishops, worrying that their children or grandchildren won’t be Catholic and about the pandemic’s impact on parish life.
The term “Eucharistic coherence” that popes have used for years is not about strict rules and exclusion, Irwin said, but “how do all of us live in life what we celebrate at Mass? I believe our people know this principle and try to live it.”
Bishops want to get different things from the document, some experts say. Some want to revive and encourage Catholics feeling distant from their faith post-pandemic. Some want to define what it means to be in a state of sin. Some hope it will mention Biden, while still others think Biden and politics loom far too much. Some want it to focus more on outreach to people on society’s margins.
On Tuesday, bishops will discuss the proposed document and can offer proposed amendments to the Doctrine Committee. On Wednesday there will be a final vote.
James Rogers, the USCCB’s chief communications officer, said he did not think the document would be in a category that requires it to be sent to the Vatican for approval, though Rome has been consulted in creating the draft.
“Hopefully it will cause a renewed reflection. What do we mean when we say the real presence? We throw that around quite a bit but it’s inviting us all to stop for a moment and think about what it means to meet Jesus Christ in person at the Mass.”
Hosffman Ospino, a Boston College theologian, said the bishops began with, and most have, “the right intention,” of looking for how to encourage Catholics to look again at the sacrament.
However, a smaller slice of bishops and some laypeople, he said, “want to use this as a political argument. Some bishops’ statements and things some groups did independently have distorted the main intention.”
The idea of Catholics “not in good standing” being kept from Communion is centuries old, he said. In the 19th century, some bishops threatened not to give Communion to families who didn’t send their children to Catholic school, he said. “But now there is a conflation of ideas and dialogues.”
Ospino thinks the bishops can still produce something important and useful.
“If they put together a document that is inspiring and creative and whatever decisions regarding reception of the Eucharist are left to, one, the individual and then to their pastors at the local level, I think that people would be satisfied.”