US Bishops Try to Keep Focus on Eucharist, Not Politicians, in New Document

On the second day of their fall assembly, the bishops avoided another heated, public debate as they approved a teaching document on the Eucharist.

(Clockwise from left) Bishop Andrew Cozzens of  tthe Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis attends a news conference at the Fall General Assembly meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Baltimore. Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., speaks during a news conference. Bishop Manuel Cruz, front left, of Newark, N.J., reads scripture during a morning prayer.
(Clockwise from left) Bishop Andrew Cozzens of tthe Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis attends a news conference at the Fall General Assembly meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Baltimore. Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., speaks during a news conference. Bishop Manuel Cruz, front left, of Newark, N.J., reads scripture during a morning prayer. (photo: Julio Cortez / AP)

BALTIMORE — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly to approve a teaching document on the Eucharist Wednesday that caused a great deal of controversy in its June meeting due to concerns that its section on worthiness to receive Communion would be perceived as aimed at prominent pro-abortion Catholic politicians like U.S. President Joe Biden. 

The document did include a section on worthiness to receive Communion, reminding the faithful 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” they “should refrain” from Communion, but contained no references to specific politicians. Compared to the three hours of heated debate its drafting spurred, there was only about a half-hour of comments from bishops before its passage by a vote of 222-8, with three abstentions. 

Further highlighting the fall assembly’s focus on Eucharistic teaching, the bishops also greenlit a Eucharistic revival initiative aimed at renewing faith in the Real Presence among the faithful.   

The bishops had only some brief comments during the discussion prior to approving the document “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, the outgoing chairman for the committee on pro-life issues, commented just before the vote that “it was good in this document to reiterate what we’ve said before about our responsibility to have dialogue and conversation with those who are Catholic but who act in a way contrary to our faith in this basic moral teaching.”

“We’ve said this before, but one of the reasons we need to say it again is I’m not sure that we’ve taken it seriously as bishops: our responsibility for the care of the souls of these politicians to really enter into a good dialogue,” Archbishop Naumann said, referencing the mother in the Second Book of the Maccabees willing to die for her faith and urging bishops “not to be afraid” to inform politicians of “how serious” it is to diverge from Church teaching on foundational moral issues like abortion.

Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, the chairman of the Committee on Doctrine, which drafted the document, told reporters with regard to worthiness to receive Communion, “We did do what I said we would do back in June and that is we gave the doctrinal, theological background to those two canons, Canon 915 and Canon 916, so I would say we did not skirt the issue ... the application is up to individual bishops, that’s not the role of the conference.”

Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law says that “those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion,” and Canon 916 states that one who is “conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess.”


Worthiness to Receive Communion

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, a doctor of canon law, told the Register that the document “was never intended to single out anyone in particular, but more the understanding of what is the Eucharist because polls tell us that apparently a good number of Catholics don't understand or believe in the Real Presence, so that's an important part of it.”

He said the document includes sections on “the call to repentance, the call to conversion, the call to be consistent between what we believe and in our actions and there's a section in there about worthiness to receive Holy Communion.” He added that you “have to see this document not just by itself, but it really should be taken in conjunction with first of all canon law. We do cite Canon 915, which says that those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to the sacrament of Holy Communion. We quote Canon 916, which talks about those who are conscious of grave sin should not present themselves for Holy Communion.” 

Bishop Paprocki said that in terms of bishops dialoguing with politicians on worthiness to receive Communion, “it's important for people to realize that those conversations have been going on for years and they're behind the scenes and people don't know about them. Unfortunately, it's not the bishops who are refusing to dialogue if bishops have been calling politicians and unfortunately there are some very prominent politicians that simply reject what the Church teaches, and that's unfortunate. He said bishops should “continue to reach out and be very clear about what the Church teaches.”

Bishop Paprocki credited the overwhelming majority reached on the document to Bishop Rhoades who, he said, “worked very hard to try to get a consensus and a lot of conversations took place behind the scenes, I'm sure, and I think that the fact that he was able to get people to agree by such an overwhelming margin is a very great credit to him.”


‘The Right Balance’

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register following the vote that he thought the document “strikes the right balance between a teaching document that can also be accessible to a wide audience” as it’s “written in a way that can be accessible to a broad range of people and especially helpful to those who are charged with teaching the faith in parishes. It's meant to be a resource document. It lays out the teachings very clearly. It does get into the area of worthiness to receive, but the theology is beyond that, as well.”

In terms of worthiness to receive Communion, he said the document “is very clear in laying out the teaching and the principles, including the principles that then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave us back in 2004. The letter that he sent us that then came to light after that, about the conversations that have to take place to try to urge the person down a path of conversion, and at a certain point that if that is going to be fruitless, then a determination has to be made they're not to be admitted to Communion.” 

Archbishop Cordileone added that “it's up to each bishop in his own conscience if and when to do that, but every bishop is obliged to help. We're responsible for the salvation of souls so to help them realize their error on this very important, preeminent issue and to help them understand that to go on a path of conversion, to embracing the totality of human life.”

Archbishop Cordileone said, “it’s a document that lays out Church teaching, so there should be nothing controversial about it” regarding the consensus among the bishops that was reached. He added that this conference, which involved more time spent in sessions closed to the public than past assemblies, may have benefitted spiritually as well from their first time “starting with a morning of prayer. We had a Monday morning was dedicated to prayer, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, confession,” which, he thought, “changed everything, it certainly set a different tone.” 

Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, spoke with the Register Wednesday morning just prior to the document’s approval and referenced a letter he wrote to his diocese in February 2019 that “politicians who reside in the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, and who obstinately persevere in their public support for abortion, should not receive Communion without first being reconciled to Christ and the Church.”

Bishop Daly said that he took this action because he saw “a very aggressive movement specifically on abortion, and people had asked me for clarification and so I issued a statement on that. 

“We look at the moral issues we face as a nation and it just seems right now, in light of perhaps the Texas law, there is this, I use the term again, aggressive celebration of abortion rights. And leaving it out of the context of the Eucharist we have an obligation first and foremost, as the Church to speak for the most vulnerable. The modern widows and orphans of today are very much the unborn.”

As for the process of drafting a document on the Eucharist, Bishop Daly said the doctrine committee was “approaching this with the immediacy of this moment, but was looking really in general into what's happening with Catholics in the Mass and I think in many ways that shaped it. And we must never lose sight of the fact that the Mass, the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, that that's primary.” 


Eucharistic Revival

In addition to their approval of the teaching document on the Eucharist Wednesday, the bishops also approved, by a 201-17 vote, a three-year Eucharistic revival initiative that will culminate in a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis. 

Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of St. Paul and Minneapolis, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, told the bishops that with the initiative, “our goal is to lead people to a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist so that their lives can be transformed,” and that the revival it would go on for three years “because we want to affect the Church at every level.” 

Said Bishop Cozzens, who will be installed as the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, Dec. 6, “The bishops are asking for a deep and sustained focus on the Eucharist. And my hope is that … this will become a long-lasting movement.”

Archbishop Cordileone told the Register that “this whole focus on Eucharist was really given a lot of impetus with the Pew study in 2019 about the decline of Catholic belief in the Real Presence, so we were already strategizing then about some kind of a Eucharistic Revival project.” 

“We now have this teaching document on the Eucharist and the mystery of the Eucharist and the life of the Church,” which will serve as “the doctrinal basis of now our parallel Eucharistic Revival project, which will be centered more around prayer, celebrations increasing devotion at the diocesan, then parish, then culminating in that National Eucharistic Congress. So, these are all kind of intertwining to try to revitalize our Catholic faith in the Eucharist, because this is at the heart and core of who Catholics are.”

Bishop Paprocki said the Eucharistic revival has “a very wonderful plan that's being put out here for diocesan celebrations of Corpus Christi next year and then parish celebrations. Every parish would be asked to do that in 2023 and then have a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in July of 2024.” 

He said the teaching document on the Eucharist is “an essential foundation for that because we're calling for a revival of the Eucharist and that's first of all, a belief of the Real Presence, but also in the practice of going to mass on Sunday and if we're calling people to do that, it's important to have a good understanding of what the Eucharist is all about, that's what the document tries to do.”