The “Statement of Principles” that about sixty Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives released on June 18, criticizing the U.S. Bishops for being, well, shepherds of their flock, is a model of disingenuous prevarication.
The Statement claims that its signatories are committed to “the dignity of life,” and that they “work every day to advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being.” Maybe, maybe not. What is certain is that each of the signatories denies the dignity of some human lives, namely those in utero. Not only. They also deny that they are human lives at all.
At the very least, that complicates the claim they advance, according to which they are working within the context of Catholic teaching. If we are perfectly frank, that fact alone guts the claim.
The Statement also claims that its signatories “believe that the Church is the ‘people of God,’ called to be a moral force” in the world. Elsewhere, however, they claim that their personal consciences trump Church teaching – and the entire purpose of the Statement is to deny the Church’s moral authority in matters of human life.
Essentially, the Statement is an example of other complaints that the Bishops should not “politicize” the Eucharist. Well, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor: If the Eucharist is not political, to hell with it.
Those whose lives are not ordered by, around, and toward the Eucharist, therefore, are those whose lives are defined by some love other than love of the Christ who is present there. Rather, their lives are ordered by the earthly city, manifest in this case, by, variously, partisan political identity or individual, radially sovereign conscience. This applies across the American political spectrum, to those who deny human dignity of the unborn, the immigrant, and the person on death row.
The Eucharist is fundamentally and inextricably political. It cannot be separated from its political claims or implications. It creates a polis: the City of God. Indeed, it is the ultimate political claim, relativizing all other politics, and subordinating all other claims of political loyalty to itself. Thus, the Eucharist makes ultimate demands on those who are claim to be ordered by it. Love of the Eucharist defines “the people of God,” and it differentiates those who are defined by other loves.
The signatories are Catholic — that is an inevitable and inalienable consequence of their baptism — but the Statement itself demonstrates that their politics are not those of citizens of the City of God on pilgrimage. They are those of the Earthly City, though these Catholics would claim the benefits of celestial citizenship while pursuing the ends of a terrestrial power.
By working against most fundamental moral claims of the heavenly polis (not just abortion), these politicians give scandal to the Church and reject the fundamental political reality of the Eucharist. Other politicians give scandal in other ways — perhaps even similar ways — and issue their own eloquent denials of the Eucharist’s political reality. I’m not talking about them, just now.
I’ve seen people “quoting” Joe Biden to the effect that he believes abortion is morally wrong, but he won’t impose it in public policy. That is not the position that he has taken at least since the 2020 election campaign. Rather, he has said that “it’s a woman’s right to do that. Period.”
Even if he has given some version of the “personally opposed, but” trope at some point, he would still have been rejecting the teaching of the Church. Abortion is about fundamental justice, not personal choice. More to the point: Abortion is about a fundamental justice at the heart of what it means to belong to the City of God. To put the matter in terms of personal opposition is to reject the City of God for the Earthly City, because the City of God is not centered on personal choice, but rather a common love of God.
The Church believes that this common love is defined by and gathered around Eucharist.
Quite apart from the US bishops’ intentions in drafting a “statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church,” the debate that the news of their considering such a statement has occasioned is not merely about politicians who reject a particular doctrine (or doctrines) of the Church. It is about politicians who reject the Church and misrepresent Church teaching while they actively campaign for policies that are directly repugnant to Catholic doctrine.
The call for the Bishops not to “politicize the Eucharist” is really a call for them to de-politicize the Eucharist: to deny that it makes a claim on our moral lives. This they cannot do. To de-politicize the Eucharist would be to deny the fundamental reality that the Eucharist — not anything else — makes the final claims on the political loyalty of a Catholic.
For other explanations of the problem, see theologian Holly Taylor Coolman’s Not Everyone Should Receive: What the Communion Debate’s Really About and pro-family activist Peter Wolfgang’s The Anti-Catholic Catholic Politicians. It’s Not Just About Communion Anymore.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law. His previous article for Chapter House was U.S. Abortion Law is About to Get Murkier.
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