Takeaways from the USCCB’s General Assembly

ROUNDTABLE: The Register speaks with Charles Camosy, Mary FioRito and Terence Sweeney for their thoughts on the bishops recent gathering in Baltimore.

L to R: Terence Sweeney, Mary FioRito and Charles Camosy.
L to R: Terence Sweeney, Mary FioRito and Charles Camosy. (photo: Register Composite)

The members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops just wrapped up their Fall 2021 General Assembly, but you might’ve not even noticed it happened if your expectations were shaped by sensationalized media accounts leading up to the meeting.

Instead of public fireworks over a document on “Eucharistic coherence” — which many expected and indeed we saw back in June, when the bishops debated whether even to move forward with such a document — this time we saw the bishops pass a final version with limited public discussion and near perfect unanimity: 222 in favor, eight opposed, and three abstentions. 

It didn’t contain an explicit ban on pro-abortion politicians from receiving Communion, but no one in the know ever expected it to. Instead, the document was a compelling rearticulation of the Church’s timeless teachings on the Eucharist, including the need for conversion and the local bishops’ pastoral duty to “guard the integrity of the sacrament, the visible communion of the Church, and the salvation of souls.”

Narrow, politically informed coverage of the Eucharistic document also tended to obfuscate other important items on the bishops’ agenda, including approval of the next steps toward canonization for three potential saints and the launch of a three-year Eucharistic revival, to culminate with a National Eucharistic Congress in 2024.

To help shed some light on the broader scope of what happened in Baltimore, and the general assembly’s true significance, the Register spoke with Charles Camosy, a moral theologian at Fordham University; Mary FioRito, the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center; and Terence Sweeney, a philosophy professor at Villanova and theologian-in-residence at the Collegium Institute at Penn University.

The assembly included a lot of talking, including significant speeches by the USCCB president, Archbishop Jose Gomezand Archbishop Christoph Pierre, the apostolic nuncio. During the proceedings, was there any particular statement or line from a speech that stuck out to you? Which one and why? 

CAMOSY: It is easy for U.S. Catholics to despair, and for many different kinds of reasons, so I particularly appreciated Archbishop Gomez’s noting, “There is a spiritual awakening going on in America” and that people are “starting to examine what they truly believe and what they value most deeply in their lives.” This seems profoundly correct to me and a huge opportunity for evangelization. Let’s go.

FIORITO: I was very much struck by Archbishop Scicluna’s remarks on the revision of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, dealing with penal sanctions in the Church. The archbishop noted that the “root of the system of discipline” is faith. Faith is the source of the “binding nature” of the Church’s law. The law presumes a “submission that comes from faith” — therefore it is voluntary. People leave the Church because they do not wish to be subject to her laws, as do some priests accused of serious sins — they leave in order to “evade and avoid” Church law. 

There is no physical coercion present, he said, but rather the law is based on the “spiritual submission” of the faithful to it. Submission to the law is an expression of faith. And penal sanctions are “an integral part of pastoral charity.” This “lens of charity” is helpful when considering the Church’s laws on a myriad of topics, including those laws that govern the reception and withholding of the Eucharist, a topic so prevalent in the media coverage (almost to the exclusion of everything else). 

SWEENEY: In order for the Church to be a field hospital, as Pope Francis teaches, we need to be able to read the signs of the times so we can apply the right remedy. I was disappointed then that Archbishop Pierre, in one key respect, fails to read the times. He is right that there can be “a temptation to treat the Eucharist as something for the privileged few” but this is not the sacramental malady of the moment. In most parishes, it is not the privileged few receiving — it’s everybody. Far too many people, thinking they are perfect, receive without confessing, and far too few people, knowing their weakness, confess and then receive. 

Nevertheless, people should read Pierre’s address because of his explanation of synodality. Synodality does “not involve changing traditional truths of Christian doctrine.” Rather, we must remember that synodality must “support the mission of evangelization.” A successful synodal approach needs both Archbishop Pierre’s address — prioritizing listening in order to preach — and Archbishop Gomez’s reminder that the Church exists to proclaim Christ. The way of listening and the way of proclaiming is the way of a synodal evangelization that Gomez says means “proclaiming Jesus Christ to help every person to find him and to walk with him.”

Several new USCCB committee chairmen were elected. What’s one selection that you think is particularly noteworthy and why?

FIORITO: Of most interest to the average lay Catholic is the election of Bishop Robert Barron as the chair of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. Bishop Barron is known for his remarkable skill in connecting with the “average person in the pew,” and explaining the faith in a very approachable and straightforward way. He has a particular gift of reaching young people, something so desperately needed as the number of “Nones” — those who don’t practice or ascribe to any religious tradition — increase in our country. 

CAMOSY: Bishop Barron’s election. I can’t believe that guy has any room on his plate for anything else. He’s an absolute machine.

SWEENEY: As a Philadelphian, I am pleased that Archbishop Borys Gudziak is now chairman of the Committee of Domestic Justice and Human Development. It is tremendous to see a Ukrainian Rite Bishop from Philadelphia take a leading role in the USCCB.

Much of the media attention leading up to the assembly was on the so-called “Eucharistic coherence” document. What do you make of how the final document turned out? What purpose do you see it serving?

CAMOSY: I think the bishops were wise not walk into the trap of making this document about abortion and pro-choice Catholic politicians. It is difficult for folks to hear such interventions without first having a basic understanding of what the Church teaches about the Eucharist and why. That’s our fundamental challenge — and it was bad enough before the pandemic and so many stopped going to Church. It is only after the broader Catholic community comes to a better understanding of what the Eucharist is that the things which follow from that understanding will be made clear.

That said, the bishops are also right to proclaim prenatal justice a preeminent issue of our time, worthy of our closest attention. 

FIORITO: Although pro-abortion groups like “Catholics for Choice” are describing the document as a “retreat” from “weaponizing the Eucharist” because it didn’t explicitly say politicians who support and promote abortion shouldn’t present themselves for Holy Communion, the document did in fact reiterate a long-standing Church teaching: that Holy Communion can be withheld from someone who persists in grave, public sin. The document did not name President Biden specifically; it didn’t need to. The scandal of those in public office who simultaneously claim to profess the Catholic faith and support legal abortion (which Pope Francis has analogized to “hiring a hitman,”) with their voices and their votes is fairly obvious to anyone who has been following the story.

SWEENEY: I want to point out a Eucharistic incoherence. This document lays out the Church’s Eucharistic teaching and a path toward a Eucharistic revival. What’s the incoherence? The fact that if the document wasn’t connected to President Biden most of us would have ignored it. A document celebrating our communion as the Body of Christ with the Body of Christ has even been described as “milquetoast” and “tepid.” If Catholics cannot get exercised by dramatic declines in sacramental practice and attempts to counteract that, then the real incoherence is in our hearts. The bishops are summoning us to re-encounter the Eucharist and then share that encounter with others. That so many of us respond to this with a shrug (since it is nonpolitical) is a scandal. 

The document will matter if it is the beginning of a renewal of sacramental life. That depends on us. If we can live out the intimate connection between reconciliation and Communion, then we can restore a coherence to our ecclesial practice. It doesn’t make sense to tell Biden he shouldn’t receive Communion unless we reconnect these sacraments. This means parishes with full confessionals and then full Communion lines. 

While the Eucharistic document has dominated the media’s focus, a lot of other issues were discussed at the assembly. What’s an underreported aspect that you think deserves more attention? 

FIORITO: The most timely of all the issues discussed was the Walking With Moms in Need initiative. With the Dobbs v. Jackson case being taken up by the Supreme Court and a decision expected in June of 2022, the country is likely going to see a significant change to — if not an outright overturning of — Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. That is going to turn the abortion issue back to the states, and how each individual state legislature responds may require the Church to increase its direct service to pregnant women and their unborn children. Of course, the “lazy slander” of the pro-life movement has always been that pro-lifers “only care about babies until their born,” and that statement is not only false, but laughable. However, the Catholic laity and bishops need to know how to speak of the concrete good that is already being done — and now expanded — in anticipation of an overturn of the U.S.’s extreme abortion laws.

CAMOSY: Walking with Moms in Need. Hands down. Especially with the Dobbs Supreme Court decision looming, we must be all-in as a Church supporting mothers in difficult circumstances — both when it comes to local charity via pregnancy help centers, but also when it comes to programs and structures like paid family leave and universal child care. Discussions of pregnancy should never leave out the mother, nor should they leave out the child. We should do as much as we possibly can to think about them together and act for their good.

SWEENEY: Archbishop Pierre supported Walking with Moms in Need as a guide for the shape of synodality and the pro-life movement. This initiative is “a synodal approach. It seeks to walk with women; to better to understand their situations … to meet the concrete needs of expectant mothers and their children.” I am the son of a single mom. My mother had a good job and worked harder than anyone I have ever met. One thing I know from watching her: Moms need help. This is especially true of mothers, and families, on the margins of society. We aren’t pro-life if we only talk about pro-life judges. We need a comprehensive pro-life approach. Yes, change the laws and overturn Roe. But also get out there and help some moms. Help pro-life groups like the Sisters of Life, and advocate for social welfare, universal health care, and job programs that make it so that no woman ever walks alone.

If you were setting the agenda for the bishops’ next assembly, what’s an item that you’d include on the docket that wasn’t featured this time around?

CAMOSY: We need a new focus on Catholic higher education. We are suffering from the kind of crisis facing many institutions of higher learning, to be sure. But ours is unique because the financial, demographic and other pressures facing higher education more broadly are causing many Catholic institutions to abandon their mission and identity. We need U.S. Catholic higher education, in particular, to return to its roots of serving vulnerable Catholic minorities and immigrants. In addition to retooling existing colleges and universities, this means building new institutions —particularly in the Southwest. 

SWEENEY: I would have preferred if this meeting had focused on the sacrament of reconciliation and then the next was on the Eucharist. Evangelization is about freeing us from sin and freeing us for love. We need to restore the message of repentance and liberation that so stirred the fishermen and prostitutes of Galilee. 

So how about a meeting on the relation of evangelization and the sacrament of reconciliation? Start the meeting with a penance service for the bishops. Give victims of abuse a chance to speak; reflect on the evils of racism; examine our complicities in a culture of death. Have priests on hand for confession. Then work on a document based on the experience, a document that proclaims that the Good News is liberation from sin and the structures of sin.

FIORITO: What absolutely needs to be addressed in a concrete way is the impact of the COVID lockdowns and restrictions on Sunday Mass attendance. It seems to be the experience in many dioceses that older Catholics — those who grew up with a great emphasis on the Sunday obligation and who desperately wanted to get back to the sacraments — have, for the most part, returned, while younger Catholics, even those with children in Catholic schools, have not. 

A discussion on what it means to “keep the holy the Lord’s Day” during a time of COVID is really necessary. Because many younger Catholics are not well-catechized, they believe that the “free pass” means another “free day” in the week. After two years, how does one break the habit of using Sunday as another day of errands and recreation? 

Finally, it’s worth noting that the USCCB General Assembly is treated something like a “Catholic Super Bowl.” There’s a dedicated cadre of Catholic media, a week of surrounding activities, and it seems to be portrayed like the most important thing in the life of the Church in the U.S. This might be a weird question to ask at the end of a roundtable dedicated to the assembly, but what do you think the assembly’s true significance is and how, for instance, should Catholic media cover it? 

SWEENEY: Well, this is not the most significant moment in the life of the Church. That happens this upcoming Sunday at my parish, when people are received into the catechumenate, when people go to confession, when they receive Communion, and when the Kingship of Jesus is proclaimed. The bishops oversee the life of the Church, they provide the guidance. I hope priests and catechists read the document on the Eucharist and implement it. It is reminder to put first things first. 

FIORITO: I worked for many years as the executive assistant to Cardinal Francis George, OMI, former archbishop of Chicago, including the three years that he was president of the USCCB. It always amazed both of us (me more than him, I suppose) that so many Catholics from around the country would write to him to ask him to intervene in a situation in another diocese. I was surprised at how many Catholics, even practicing ones, thought that the president of the USCCB was akin to the president of the United States — that the role somehow gave that bishop authority over other ordinaries and their diocesan institutions. As you know, it doesn’t. Each ordinary reports directly to the Holy Father through the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C. 

I was also saddened to see that in some of the discussion around the elections for chairmen of different committees an overt political tone was present — for example, “the liberal beat the conservative bishop by 20 votes!” sort of headline. “Liberal” and “conservative” are really deficient (and unimaginative) terms to describe the pastoral approach of different bishops, for starters, and their very usage in reporting smacks of “one side against the other.”

While I think the overall coverage has been very good, I do think it has the tone of “inside baseball” some of the time, with the average Catholic neither knowing or understanding how what was being debated and discussed will affect their lives. In addition, depending on whose Twitter feed I was following, it was like there were almost two different meetings going on! Coverage should strive to be completely objective. Bringing the reporting “back to the people” would be a help, I think, in explaining why the annual meeting is more than a public airing of grievances or a popularity contest. 

CAMOSY: I think in some ways it can be sensationalized, but in other ways it is an important window into what the bishops value and how they are thinking about the things they value. I was thinking the other day about how extraordinary it is that the media has such access and that so much of the coverage is critical and even biting. I think that says good things about our Church that we are willing to have that kind of transparency. I think the level of interest also demonstrates that reports of the supposed irrelevance of the U.S. bishops has been greatly exaggerated.