The bishops of the United States are meeting virtually for their regular spring Plenary Assembly from Wednesday through Friday of this week, with a full agenda including votes on causes for canonization, liturgical translations, and policy statements on pastoral ministry to native Americans and young people heading the agenda.
However, the meeting is likely to be overshadowed by a debate on whether to draft a formal statement on “the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.”
Despite the innocuous title, the proposed statement has already caused controversy, as it is expected to deal with the question of how the Church should respond to politicians who take public policy positions contrary to Church teaching. The issue has taken on new relevance with the election of Joe Biden as only the second Catholic president of the United States.
At the USCCB’s last Plenary Assembly, in November, conference president José Gomez, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, announced the formation of a working group to examine the question. Earlier this year, the working group proposed the development of “a document addressed to all the Catholic faithful on eucharistic coherence,” which would focus primarily on Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, while including a section addressing the requirement for the worthy reception of Holy Communion.
The Vatican steps in
In an unusual move, the Vatican intervened in the matter last month, with a letter from the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, in response to a letter from Archbishop Gomez seeking an “informal review,” of the proposed document, “prior to its submission to the body of bishops for a vote.”
Cardinal Ladaria insisted that such a document “should only be discussed in the context of the CDF’s authoritative Doctrinal note of 2002, On some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life.” At the same time, he downplayed an earlier intervention by then CDF Prefect Joseph Ratzinger – later Pope Benedict XVI – that suggested a stronger response to politicians who refused to adhere to Church teaching.
The Prefect also warned against the “possibly contentious nature” of a national policy becoming “a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger Church in the United States,” and encouraged the bishops to engage in dialogue – first among themselves and then between Bishops and politicians. Cardinal Ladaria’s letter implied that the bishops of the USCCB might not find agreement “as a Conference that support of pro-choice legislation is not compatible with Catholic teaching.”
His letter also stated that any national policy should only come after the completion of these two stages of dialogue, and then must “express a true consensus of the bishops on the matter,” while respecting “the rights of individual Ordinaries in their dioceses and the prerogatives of the Holy See.” Cardinal Ladaria urged, too, that “every effort” should be made to “dialogue” with other episcopal conferences throughout the world in order to “preserve unity” throughout the Church.
Calls for delay
In the wake of Cardinal Ladaria’s letter, a significant number of US bishops – about 15% of the nation’s approximately 430 prelates – signed a letter to Archbishop Gomez asking him to postpone “all Conference wide discussion and committee work on the topic of Eucharistic worthiness and other issues raised by the Holy See… until the full body of bishops is able to meet in person.”
They maintained that “the serious nature of these issues — especially the imperative to forgo substantive unity — makes it impossible to address them productively in the fractured and isolated setting of a distance meeting.” They argued further that “high standard of consensus among ourselves and of maintaining unity with the Holy See and the Universal Church as set forth by Cardinal Ladaria is far from being achieved in the present moment.”
In a memo to the bishops ahead of this week’s Plenary Assembly, Archbishop Gomez, without acknowledging the letter of the bishops, noted that the question of the document had been placed on the agenda for the meeting through the ordinary process of approval of the USCCB’s administrative committee.
Also on the agenda
Although the proposed document on “Eucharistic coherence” promises to dominate discussion, the bishops will be discussing other topics at their spring meeting.
The bishops will be asked to vote on advancing the causes for canonization of two American Servants of God: Fr Joseph Verbis Lafleur, a priest of the Military Ordinariate whose cause was opened by his home diocese of Lafayette in September of last year; and Benedictine monk Marinus (né Leonard) LaRue, whose cause was opened by the Diocese of Paterson, NJ, in March of 2019.
The head of the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship, Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, Connecticut, will present three translations from the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) for approval for use in the United States. If two-thirds of the Latin-Rite bishops of the Conference vote in favour, the translations will require the confirmatio of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments before they are introduced for public use.
The US bishops will also be voting on a “National Pastoral Framework for Marriage and Family Life Ministry in the United States: Called to the Joy of Love” and to approve the drafting of a “national pastoral framework” for youth and young adults. Additionally, the Conference’s Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church will ask for authorisation to develop a “formal statement and comprehensive vision” for pastoral ministry for Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
Although the bishops will receive a report from the National Review Board on policies and practices concerning the protection of young people, there are no safeguarding “action items” on the agenda for the spring Plenary Assembly. Other items on the agenda include updates on the Eucharistic Revival agenda; a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate on the work of the Subcommittee on the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travellers; and on the work of the Subcommittee on the Catechism.
Finally, Bishop Mario Dorsonville, an auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Washington and chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration will present a report on a meeting on immigration matters which took place earlier this month at Mundelein Seminary. The “emergency meeting” on immigration included more than 20 Bishops, including prelates from Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico; as well as leaders of major Catholic charitable organisations such as Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, and the Jesuit Migration Network.
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