US Bishops’ Fall Meeting Preview: Document on Eucharistic Coherence Unlikely to Call Out Specific Politicians

The Nov. 15-17 gathering in Baltimore will bring the bishops together for the first time since 2019.

Participants at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2019 spring general assembly pray together before the afternoon session, June 12, 2019.
Participants at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2019 spring general assembly pray together before the afternoon session, June 12, 2019. (photo: Katie Veik / CNA/EWTN)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will meet in person Nov. 15-17 for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic, and the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist will be front and center on the agenda — just as it was at their previous gathering in the spring.

During their virtual meeting in June, the bishops voted to draft a teaching document on the Eucharist with a section on worthiness to receive Holy Communion. A heated debate preceded the vote when a vocal minority of bishops pushed back against drafting the document with concerns that it would be interpreted politically as a move against President Joe Biden, who is pro-abortion and a baptized Catholic. 

Ultimately, the bishops decided to move forward with drafting the document, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” in a vote of 168-55, with six bishops abstaining. 

Pro-abortion politicians responded aggressively following the vote, with 60 House Democrats who are baptized Catholics and support abortion releasing a “statement of principles” asking the Church to “not move forward and deny this most holy of all sacraments, the source and the summit of the whole work of the gospel, over one issue.” 

The USCCB responded with a question-and-answer sheet about the vote, clarifying that “the bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion” and noting that “the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.” 

They also denied reports that the Vatican was against drafting the document and said that “the Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation,” and “collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.”

Ahead of the fall meeting, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, a doctor of canon law, told the Register about some of the progress that has been made on the document, what the current draft contained on the worthiness to receive Communion, and what the bishops might focus on prior to their final vote on it. 

In his role as a member of the USCCB’s Committee on Canonical Affairs, he met with the committee recently and was able to make some suggestions after seeing the draft document. 

“It’s currently in the usual process, where bishops will be able to submit first what they call modifications, and the modifications go to the Committee on Doctrine to determine whether or not to accept those,” he said. “During the week of our USCCB meeting in Baltimore, bishops can still propose amendments, and the amendments, if they’re not accepted by the committee, then are voted on by the whole body of bishops from the floor.”

He added, “I would anticipate that there’ll be a number of modifications and amendments that will be proposed before and during our meeting before we get a final text out of this meeting in November.” 


What the Document Will Say

Bishop Paprocki said the document “really goes to the underlying theology of the Eucharist, of what we understand is the gift that Our Lord has given to us at the Last Supper when he instituted the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood as we know it. It talks about the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross. We call it the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because it represents what took place at Calvary.” 

He said the emphasis on the Real Presence is “fundamental” because recent polling has indicated that a “good number of Catholics apparently don’t believe or at least don’t understand what the Church teaches in terms of the Real Presence.”

He said a portion of the draft document also “talks about being properly disposed for the sacrament” and quotes the USCCB’s 2006 statement “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper,” that “if a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church.”

Bishop Paprocki said, “Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.”

Another part of the current draft quotes St. John Paul II’s 2003 encyclical on the Eucharist and its relation to the Church, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, where he wrote, “The judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience. However, in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved. The Code of Canon Law refers to this situation of a manifest lack of proper moral disposition when it states that those who ‘obstinately persist in manifest grave sin’ [Canon 915] are not to be admitted to Eucharistic communion.” 

No Mention of Specific Politicians

Bishop Paprocki said that “the document doesn’t state any politician by name or any government official, and I don’t think it’s going to do that. You have this reference here to Canon 915, and the question will be then, to whom does that apply? Personally, I’m planning to propose that the document include a quote from the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean.” 

He said he will ask that the document include a quote from the 2007 Aparecida document of which then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was the lead author. The document says, “We hope that legislators, heads of government, and health professionals, conscious of the dignity of human life and of the rootedness of the family in our peoples, will defend and protect it from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia. ... 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 family are encouraged.”

Russell Shaw, a Catholic author and longtime Church observer who served as secretary for public affairs for the U.S. bishops from 1969 to 1987, told the Register that he expects the debate on the document “will be a letdown for people expecting the bishops to take a shot at pro-choice Catholic politicians like President Biden and Speaker Pelosi. It is possible that the document will contain some kind of statement about worthiness to receive Communion, but if so, it will be cast in general terms and not directed at any particular individual or group. This became perfectly clear during the USCCB general assembly last June.”

Francis Maier, senior fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), told the Register via email that he doubted “that any political leader will be named or that politicians will be the document’s main focus.”

“The bishops have always stressed that we all have an obligation to conform our hearts to the teaching of the Church, not just politicians,” Maier said. “And if we can’t do that, especially on a matter as grave as abortion, we need to refrain from receiving Communion. The bishops have not politicized the issue of Communion; any ‘politicization’ of the Eucharist has come from unfriendly media and recalcitrant public figures.”


U.S. Bishops and Pope Francis

He noted that, “certainly, among the bishops, there’s a high degree of frustration with specific public figures like Pelosi and Biden. Both, in their behavior, elevate themselves above the believing community to which they claim to belong. And they do it on a matter that early Christians described as homicide and the Church has always vigorously rejected. Every abortion kills an innocent unborn child.” In response to the framing by some in the media that the U.S. bishops are going against Pope Francis’ pastoral approach in their discussion of worthiness to receive Communion, Bishop Paprocki said it was “unfortunate that there are some that try to paint the Holy Father and the bishops of the United States as not in agreement on this issue.”

He pointed out that Pope Francis was one of the drafters of the Aparecida document and always a strong proponent of its message. “More recently, during the recent press conference that the Holy Father had on an airplane, he was talking about abortion as being murder,” said Bishop Paprocki. “He was very strong about that and that the politicians that promote abortion have put themselves outside of the community of the Church.” 

In remarks during his return flight to Rome from Slovakia Sept. 15, Pope Francis told reporters, “Communion is a gift, a present; it is the presence of Jesus in the Church and in the community. Then those who are not in the community cannot take Communion ... [being] out of the community — excommunicated — because they are not baptized or have drifted away.” 

He said of abortion, “It’s more than a problem, it’s homicide; whoever has an abortion kills. No mincing words.” 

The Holy Father saids, “Take any book on embryology for medical students. The third week after conception, all the organs are already there, even the DNA. ... It is a human life. This human life must be respected; this principle is so clear. ... That is why the Church is so harsh on this issue, because if it accepts this, it is as if it accepts daily murder.”

Bishop Paprocki said the draft document also references the sacrament of reconciliation, saying that “one should not celebrate Mass or receive Holy Communion in the state of mortal sin without having sought the sacrament of reconciliation and received absolution.” 


Eucharistic Revival

He called that a key issue, as well, because “it’s not that the Church is trying to tell people not to go to Communion. We want people to go to Communion. But if people are conscious of grave sin, they should go to confession; and just as much as we want people to receive Holy Communion, we want them to have their sins forgiven — and so they should make use of the sacrament of reconciliation.”

Another expected focus of the upcoming meeting is the vote on a three-year initiative called “Eucharistic Revival: My Flesh for the Life of the World,” which will aim to start a national movement in the U.S. for Catholics to encounter Christ in the Eucharist. This is both in light of poll findings showing that only a third of U.S. Catholics believe in the Real Presence and in light of the toll the pandemic has taken on Catholics and in-person worship.

Bishop Paprocki is a supporter of the initiative, but said “it’s important that we have this document prior to the Eucharistic Revival and that we not wait to publish this document until after the revival of it, because if we’re looking for a revival of the Eucharist, we have to know what it is we’re reviving, and I think that’s what this document seeks to do.”

He said, “It seeks to explain the doctrine more clearly so people will understand what the Eucharist is; and then with that understanding, hopefully we will be able to have a revival where more people will return to attending Mass and participating in the sacraments.” 

Regarding the Eucharistic Revival initiative, Shaw said, “Heaven knows we need a revival of Catholic understanding of and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, and I hope this helps bring that about. In the end, after all, it’s a lot more important than anything the bishops might have to say about Joe Biden.”

The teaching document and Eucharistic Revival initiative came about, Maier said, because “the bishops see the need to restore that reverence and authentic Eucharistic belief to American Catholic life.”

“Scripture is very clear that receiving the Eucharist worthily gives life and unworthily incurs condemnation,” Maier said. 

“If we don’t believe that, we shouldn’t bother being in church. Approaching the altar should be an act of humility and reverence.”