The US Bishops’ Conference is to issue a teaching document “on the beauty and power of the Eucharist”.
It is overdue. In 2019, a Pew survey suggested that barely a third of US Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is a scandal, evidence of a failure of grassroots catechisis, ofCatholic schools and of the US bishops themselves.
The document is however not attracting attention because it will reassert fundamental Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist, but because of a widespread understanding that it is a means for the bishops to make clear that President Biden and other Democrats should not receive Communion because of their support for abortion. This approach is endorsed eloquently in an article in this issue by Fr Gerald Murray.
However, it’s not clear that this is what the bishops do have in mind. “Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?” it asked on its website. The answer is: “No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic – regardless of whether they hold public office or not – is called to continual conversion…”
This does not look like a showdown. But should there be?
Abortion kills a prenatal human being and is a grave sin. And it will not quite do for President Biden to say, as he does, that he is personally opposed to abortion but voted for the legal provision of it for others. He is also overturning the prohibition on using public money to pay for abortions at home and abroad. He has made clear too that his appointments to the Supreme Court will be of judges who support Roe v Wade. This amounts to moral complicity in prenatal injustice.
Yet barring the president from the Eucharist is a serious matter. Grave sin is a disqualification for taking Communion, but there are many grave sins. It is not clear why facilitating abortion should be unique. Should legislators who support abortion be treated more harshly, for instance, than those who sanctioned the destruction of Hiroshima?
During the course of the Church’s history, excommunication was used often against secular rulers who offended against moral or ecclesiastical norms, or were in dispute with the papacy. And these excommunications were often, by the same papal authority, reversed. But this pontifical version of the nuclear button was used in a society where the gravity of the sanction was generally understood. This is not the case now.
At issue too are different understandings of the sacrament. Pope Francis has memorably said that “the Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”. This pronouncement is self-evidently true, but also, like many of Pope Francis’s pronouncements, ambiguous. Is the Pope saying that people in a state of mortal sin may take Communion? This would be a significant departure from the traditional understanding and he should tell us if that is what he thinks. But in any event, were the US bishops to single out legislators who support abortion for exclusion from the Eucharist, it would send a curious message about the nature of the sacrament.
On this and other matters, there is a need for the bishops to do more than issue documents. There is a case for convening a fourth plenary council of the American Church to follow the three that were held in Baltimore in the 19th century. A council would be a means to address not just this issue but many others that are dividing the fractured American Church.
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