What the US Bishops’ ‘Eucharistic Coherence’ Document Can Do — If We Let It
EDITORIAL: Hyper-politicized interpretations of the document make two crucial mistakes.
After months of public controversy, the U.S. bishops approved a teaching document on the Eucharist at their fall general assembly: “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.”
To the elation of some and the disappointment of others, the document contains no explicit Communion ban of Catholic politicians who promote abortion rights, like President Joe Biden. Because the document had been irresponsibly framed by many in the media as solely concerned with that issue, strident voices from different ecclesial extremes have dismissed the final version with words like “tepid” and “incoherent.”
If it didn’t ban Biden from receiving Communion by name, what, both sides ask facetiously, was even the point of it? Some have even used this criticism of the final document to advance a self-serving narrative of the bishops as ineffective and irrelevant.
Such interpretations make two critical mistakes. First, they mistake the role and the jurisdiction of the USCCB, the episcopal conference of the Catholic Church in the United States. The bishops’ document contained no “by-name” Communion ban for pro-abortion-rights politicians because the USCCB has no power to take such disciplinary action — it never has. According to canon law, that’s a pastoral matter decided upon by the local ordinary of the politician in question: the bishop who is ultimately responsible for the spiritual care of said politician and of the local flock.
Second, these dismissive responses to a teaching document on the Eucharist reveal a dangerously reductive and ideological perspective. They treat the Body and Blood of Christ as nothing more than a political football, a mere object to be used in partisan politics. So if the document doesn’t say anything that can be conveniently weaponized for partisan points, they treat it as irrelevant.
Although Biden’s election — and the unique scandal of a Catholic president promoting an intrinsic evil — may have served as the most urgent catalyst for this document, the bishops have repeatedly made clear it is part of a much broader response to a pervasive crisis of Eucharistic belief and practice in the U.S. Bizarrely, even the fact of this crisis has been disputed by some, though recent polling unambiguously affirms that it is sadly the case.
Critiquing many of these hyper-politicized interpretations that view the document as insignificant, Villanova philosopher Terence Sweeney said the fact “that so many of us respond to this with a shrug (since it is nonpolitical) is a scandal” and a sign that “the real incoherence is in our hearts.”
In fact, it is precisely this incoherence that “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” can help to address — if we let it.
The document may not be the most sublime, but it is a timely and edifying synthesis of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist and its application in our lives as Catholics in the United States. It contains beautiful catechesis on the Eucharist’s connection to our divinization, participation in Christ’s sacrifice, and communion with God and one another. It underscores the importance of taking part in the Lord’s Day liturgy and highlights practical means for fostering Eucharistic devotion.
And it speaks clearly and powerfully about “the personal and moral transformation” sustained by the Eucharist, which affects not just our lives as individuals, but all of our relationships and, indeed, “our society as a whole.” As the document notes, the Eucharist calls for a coherence between what we profess and how we live, committing us to the poor, the unborn and the vulnerable in our midst. Do critics of the document really deny that meaningful fruit cannot come from prayerful engagement with this text or the initiatives generated from it?
Furthermore, although the document doesn’t individually name and ban those who publicly dissent from Church teaching and the moral law from receiving Communion (again, because it can’t), it lays out clearly the relevant teaching.
Regarding Eucharistic coherence, for instance, the bishops teach, “The person who, by his or her own action, has broken communion with Christ and his Church but receives the Blessed Sacrament acts incoherently, both claiming and rejecting communion at the same time.” Highlighting the danger of scandal that such a scenario can entail, the bishops cite Pope St. John Paul II, who taught that “those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Eucharistic communion.” The bishops themselves affirm that “[i]t is the special responsibility of the diocesan bishop to work to remedy situations that involve public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law. Indeed, he must guard the integrity of the sacrament, the visible communion of the Church, and the salvation of souls.”
What the document contains, then, is an undeniable restatement of the Church’s perennial teaching on Eucharistic coherence, including guidance for when and why a Catholic might need to be barred from Holy Communion. Only the most obtuse, politically motivated readings of the document could deny that it, in fact, is applicable to pro-abortion-rights politicians. So while the USCCB can’t ban politicians who promote intrinsic evils from receiving Communion as a means for protecting their souls and encouraging their repentance, local bishops can — and this document may help them to do so.
It’s not unreasonable to think that, on the basis of the document’s restatement of tried-and-true Church teaching and its near-unanimous approval by the episcopal conference, local ordinaries may be encouraged to make the difficult, but sometimes needed, decision of publicly stating that pro-abortion-rights politicians will not be admitted to Communion in their dioceses.
Finally, the bishops’ document can contribute to greater Eucharistic coherence in America precisely because it is not just a document. Instead, it is the “cornerstone” of a much grander Eucharistic Revival, set to launch this coming summer, before culminating with a National Eucharistic Congress in July 2024. As Stephen White has noted, the document is “a beginning by the bishops, not the end.”
Clearly, the “pointlessness” of this document has been grossly overstated. One wonders what some might have to gain by undercutting a document devoted to restoring authentic Eucharistic belief and practice in the United States.
But the fruitfulness of the bishops’ teaching is not inevitable. In a way, this mirrors the way the bishops chose to break up and frame their teaching on the Eucharist: as a gift from Christ, which calls for our faithful response.
Through his apostles’ successors, Christ has given the Church in the U.S. an invaluable gift: a chance to embark on a revival of our Eucharistic faith. The next step is up to us — as bishops, clergy and laypeople, and as families, parishes and dioceses. How will we respond?