Fissures on Holy Communion: Some Bishops Push Back on Eucharistic Coherence Discussion
More than 60 bishops signed a letter urging the USCCB leadership to postpone the upcoming discussion on Church teaching and reception of the Eucharist.
WASHINGTON — Five months after the inauguration of President Joe Biden — a Catholic who both supports the expansion of permissive abortion laws and receives Communion — a faction of U.S. bishops has campaigned to postpone discussion on the drafting of a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meeting in June.
Catholic news outlets confirmed this week that Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, along with Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston and reportedly a total of 67 of the 434 active and retired bishops in the U.S., have challenged the decision by the USCCB leadership to address the topic. The letter, dated May 13 and addressed to Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the USCCB’s president, requests that the scheduled discussion on “Eucharistic worthiness and other issues raised by the Holy See” be removed from the agenda of the June 16-18 virtual assembly.
The May 13 letter, and the subsequent reactions to it, expose the fissures within the conference as the U.S. bishops and Vatican officials react to the shifting political landscape of the Biden administration, which has celebrated the president’s Catholic faith while issuing executive orders that remove legal protections for unborn human life and religious freedom.
The USCCB leadership had initially appointed a working group last November to discuss the issues associated with the election of a Catholic president who has defended abortion laws. That group subsequently recommended a conference-wide discussion at the bishops’ June meeting, with the possibility of commissioning the USCCB’s doctrine committee to develop a catechetical statement that addresses “how best to help people to understand the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist as the center of their Christian lives,” as Archbishop Gomez noted in a May 22 memo to USCCB members.
The signers of the May 13 letter to Archbishop Gomez bolstered their argument to scrap the topic from the June meeting by pointing to a May 7 guidance letter
from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), who outlined an extended timeline for ecclesial dialogue on a “national policy” regarding reception of Communion by political leaders that would preserve unity among the bishops.
Cardinal Cupich, who attacked the USCCB leadership in January over its handling of President Joe Biden’s support for abortion, and his co-signers contended that a virtual assembly would impede the goal of a unified message on this complex matter.
“The serious nature of these issues — especially the imperative to forge substantive unity — makes it impossible to address them productively in the fractured and isolated setting of a distance meeting,” their letter stated. “The high standard of consensus among ourselves and of maintaining unity with the Holy See and the Universal Church as set forth set by Cardinal Ladaria is far from being achieved in the present moment.”
Further, the letter argued that Cardinal Ladaria’s guidance raised questions about the suitability of the conference’s framework for discussing the topic. The Vatican’s timely guidance, the letter to Archbishop Gomez said, presented an opportunity “to re-envision the best collegial structure for achieving” a consensus on the matter.
The Register reached out to Cardinal Gregory for comment, but had not received a reply by press time. Meanwhile, an Archdiocese of Boston spokesman told the Register that Cardinal O’Malley had signed the letter because he believed it would be beneficial to “give more time for more reflection, preparation and fuller conversation rather than rushing it in June.”
Pushback From Other Bishops
On May 25, shortly after Catholic media outlets reported on the letter’s effort to postpone the conference-wide discussion, Archbishops Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and Samuel Aquila of Denver rejected the attempt to challenge established “procedures of the USCCB.”
“I’m deeply grieved by the rising public acrimony among bishops and the adoption of behind-closed-doors maneuvers to interfere with the accepted, normal, agreed-upon procedures of the USCCB,” Archbishop Cordileone said in a statement provided to Catholic News Agency.
“Those who do not want to issue a document on Eucharistic coherence should be open to debating the question objectively and fairly with their brother bishops, rather than attempting to derail the process.”
Archbishop Aquila underscored the urgency of addressing the issue of Eucharistic coherence in his statement.
“As I have previously written, the issue of Eucharistic coherence is primarily ‘a question of love, a question of charity toward our neighbor,’” said the archbishop.
“St. Paul is clear that there is danger to one’s soul if he or she receives the Body and Blood of Our Lord in an unworthy manner,” he added.
“As bishops, we are failing in our duty as shepherds if we ignore this truth and how it is manifesting itself in today’s society, especially with regards to those in prominent positions who reject fundamental teachings of the Church and insist that they be allowed to receive Communion.”
The following day, other bishops stepped forward to signal their support for Archbishop Gomez, suggesting the letter signed by Cardinal Cupich and other bishops had actually triggered open disagreements within the conference, even as they lobbied for a path that would ensure episcopal unity.
Included among those was Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee for Pro-Life Activities, who stated May 26, “… we have several prominent Catholics in public life who profess to be devout Catholics while acting in a manner contrary to Catholic moral teaching and in violation of the most fundamental of human rights, the right to life. Whether intentionally or not, they are sowing seeds of confusion about Catholic teaching, especially among our young people.”
The archbishop added, “It would be a failure in our responsibility as bishops to neglect to address in a timely manner these challenges to what is central to our Catholic spirituality.”
“Sadly, there are some bishops and cardinals of the Church who not only are willing to give Holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians, but who seek to block the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from addressing the question of Eucharistic coherence,” read a statement issued by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois.
Bishop Paprocki bluntly noted that the topic “has taken on heightened urgency with the election of President Biden, a Catholic who promotes the evils of abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism.”
“I fully support the decision of Archbishop Gomez and the Executive Committee of the USCCB to proceed with discussion of the topic of Eucharistic coherence at our June meeting.”
In a statement that provided biblical and canonical support for such a document, the Springfield bishop noted that the phrase “Eucharistic coherence” was employed by the Latin American bishops in Paragraph 436 of their 2007 “Aparecida Document,” which proclaimed the moral responsibility of public officials and health-care professionals to protect the sanctity of human life and the family and to avoid reception of the Eucharist when they have violated this norm.
“We must adhere to ‘Eucharistic coherence,’ that is, be conscious that they cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and the family are encouraged,” the document stated.
“It should be noted,” said Bishop Paprocki, “that then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, played a crucial role in the development of the ‘Aparecida Document.’”
“I would like to know the answer to the question that many bishops are asking: ‘What is the desired outcome of this proposed postponement?’” Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, told the Register.
Those who signed the May 13 letter “believe we should delay this discussion because a virtual format is not conducive to a conversation on this topic,” Bishop Daly said. “But this topic is too important to postpone, and the longer we delay, the more we allow individuals without the proper authority to redefine what it means to be a devout Catholic, and that includes Biden and Nancy Pelosi.”
Cardinal Cupich’s Role
The May 13 letter was the latest element of the campaign mounted by a faction of U.S. bishops, led by Cardinal Cupich, to forestall actions by the conference intended to address the problems posed by Catholic politicians like Biden.
In January, after Archbishop Gomez’s Inauguration Day statement was released, Cardinal Cupich took the unprecedented step of posting a scathing criticismof the USCCB president’s remarks in a four-part Twitter thread later that day. Cardinal Cupich also traveled to the Vatican in late April, along with Cardinal Tobin, and met with Cardinal Ladaria a week before the CDF prefect released his guidance advising caution regarding the USCCB’s proposed document on Eucharist coherence and the responsibilities of Catholic politicians.
Cardinal Gregory, for his part, has publicly stated that he would not deny President Biden Communion in the Archdiocese of Washington and reportedly said that Archbishop Gomez’s Inauguration Day statement was “ill-timed.”
Catholic commentators contacted by the Register expressed surprise that Cardinal Cupich had led an effort designed to circumvent the USCCB’s established procedures at the very time that Pope Francis had pressed for episcopal conferences to have a larger role in the Church.
“I have never seen anything like this before,” Russell Shaw, a former USCCB spokesman and author of Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, told the Register.
“This attempt to organize widespread opposition to a document before it is even written is highly unusual.”
Likewise, Shaw questioned whether Cardinal Ladaria sought to block the conference-wide discussion on the Eucharist.
“It depends how you choose to read the cardinal’s letter,” said Shaw, who noted that the CDF prefect’s recommendation of a lengthy process of discussions among bishops and between bishops and politicians had been interpreted by some as an attempt to derail the project.
“But Cardinal Ladaria didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it.’ Instead, he said, ‘Here is a process you should follow, and this is what you should avoid.’ It wasn’t a cease and desist. It was a proceed with caution.”
Archbishop Gomez’s Memo
In his May 22 memorandum, “A Possible Document on the Eucharist,” sent to USCCB members, Archbishop Gomez sought to tamp down the furor. He reminded his fellow bishops that the focus of the document in question was not political, but catechetic: “how best to help people to understand the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist as the center of their Christian lives.”
The Los Angeles archbishop emphasized that the conference leadership had carefully followed established protocols on this matter, and he traced that process in detail.
Further, Archbishop Gomez’s memo made clear, the bishops will only be asked to approve the start of the drafting process, with the expectation of ongoing consultations, modifications and amendments at a future USCCB assembly.
The memo was clearly designed to defend the USCCB leadership and push back on its critics, and commentators contacted by the Register applauded this move.
“Archbishop Cordileone made the point that [the Church leaders who signed the letter are] sabotaging the normal procedures that the bishops have established for themselves,” Robert Royal, the founder and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington and editor in chief of “The Catholic Thing” website, told the Register.
“Cardinal Cupich goes over the heads of his fellow bishops and then invites Rome to interfere. If you have a preference for how this should be addressed, then you go to the bishops’ meeting and debate it.”
“And unless Archbishop Gomez receives a directive from Rome telling him not to proceed,” Royal added, “I would advise him to put his response to Cardinal Cupich in institutional terms: ‘Thank you for the advice, but this is what the bishops of the United States have chosen to do.’
“‘We will look at your letter at our meeting and listen to the voices of our fellow bishops that don’t want to go down that path. But we follow the established protocols,’” Royal said. “‘We do that so no one gets to dictate, and there is a fairness to the process. Otherwise, the conference will be subject to the whim of whoever happens to have the ear of the right official in Rome at a given moment.’”