NEW YORK – In a spirited two-hour debate Thursday, both critics and champions of a U.S. bishops’ doctrinal committee proposal to draft a document on the Eucharist which, among other things, could have implications for Catholic politicians receiving the Eucharist, cited timing and potential disunity as reasons why they were for, or against, the project.
More than 40 bishops offered opinions on the proposal at day two of their annual spring assembly. Afterwards, each bishop submitted their vote to approve or deny the proposal. The final tally will be revealed this afternoon.
On Thursday, some of the nation’s top prelates were among the proposal’s biggest critics.
“In my nearly 38 years as a member of this episcopal conference, I cannot recall a similar moment,” said Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington. “The choice before us at this moment is either we pursue a path of strengthening unity amongst ourselves, or settle for creating a document that will not bring unity, but may very well further damage it.”
The cardinal added that the bishops need to spend time “in candid, straightforward conversation together to strengthen that unity within our conference” before taking the next steps towards a statement or plan of action.
If the proposal is approved, the doctrinal committee will begin developing the document with input from a number of other USCCB committees and bishops. The final document will then be discussed and voted on for approval at November’s fall assembly, where it needs a two-thirds majority.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, like Gregory, made the case it’s too soon.
“Voting in the affirmative will produce a document, not unity,” Tobin said. “Voting against it will allow us to work together in dialogue to forge a broad agreement on the serious questions embedded in the issue of Eucharistic worthiness.”
In a pre-recorded address to open the discussion on the proposal, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort-Wayne South Bend, the doctrinal committee chair, explained the committee’s reasoning behind the document, its focus and proposed contents.
Rhoades identified the faithful’s absence from the pews through the pandemic and a “pluralistic environment” where the truth about the Eucharist can get lost as two reasons why the committee finds it important to reaffirm the meaning of the Eucharist. He also cited national surveys that indicate Catholics believe the Eucharist to be only a symbol.
The USCCB chairman also made it clear that the document was never considered by the committee to be about any one individual, or category of sinful behavior. He said the committee ultimately decided against formulating a national policy on worthiness to receive communion.
There would be, however, a proposed subsection of Eucharistic consistency in the document, Rhoades said, which addresses actions “that inflict damage to the honor due the sacrament, or cause scandal to the faithful.”
Despite his claims otherwise, the combination of that subsection and previous statements from other bishops about barring pro-choice Catholic politicians from communion – particularly President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – has led a number of bishops to maintain a belief that the document is politically motivated.
“Those who are insisting that we need to do this immediately really reveal what this is about,” Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago said. “They want us to make statements and do something about politicians who hold positions that are contrary to our teaching.”
Bishop Robert Coerver of Lubbock questioned if the timing is politically motivated.
“There seems to be a rush to this,” Coerver said. “I can’t help but wonder if the years 2022 and 2024 might be part of the rush, and I think we need to be really careful not to get embroiled in the political situation.”
Tobin warned political motivations are a grave mistake.
“Any efforts by this conference to move forward with a categorical exclusion of Catholic political leaders from Eucharist based on their public policy positions will thrust the bishops of our nation into the very heart of the toxic partisan strife, which has distorted our own political culture and crippled meaningful dialogue.”
On the other side of the debate Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, chairman of the USCCB pro-life activities committee, said it’s not the bishops but certain politicians that have created this controversy, noting Biden’s commitment to expanding abortion rights.
Bishop Liam Cary of Baker called it an “unprecedented situation” that there’s a Catholic president who opposes the teaching of the church. Bishop Donald Hying of Madison said he speaks with Catholics daily confused about Biden’s Catholicism.
Other perspectives from bishops on both sides of the debate weren’t political. There was also widespread agreement that if this proposal is approved, in-person regional meetings should take place for bishops to further discuss the document.
In support of the draft, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and others made the point that there will be “further ways to have serene dialogue and conversation” with a draft to reference, which is why it should be developed.
Bishop James Wall of Gallup made what he called a “plea on behalf of a poorer diocese.”
“A diocese such as mine we don’t have the resources or maybe send away people to get advanced degrees in different things like that,” Wall said. “So, a lot of things we do we rely on the work of the conference and committees and documents and statements that come from the conference.”
Others opposed, such as Gregory, Tobin and Cupich, wanted to wait until November so the discussion can be in person. Many also said they would support the proposal if the subsection on Eucharistic consistency was removed.
Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe presented alternative pastoral reflection called “Welcome Home” built on positivity and unity.
“It would be an invitation back to the Eucharist,” Wester said. “It could be an invitation to rediscover what unites us, to give us strength and sends us forward to proclaim the good news.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg