WASHINGTON, D.C. — The much-awaited proposed statement on the Eucharist from the U.S. bishops is striving for a consensus that may be hard to come by, said a longtime church journalist.
Originally characterized as a statement that would give bishops cover to deny Communion to President Joe Biden and other Catholic elected officials who support legal abortion, said panelist Christopher White, “there’s been a lot of backtracking in recent months.”
“It’s not about politicians, it’s reminding Catholics about the importance of the Eucharist,” said White, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, who covered Biden’s Oct. 29 meeting with Pope Francis.
“But it’s hard not to see politics baked into its DNA,” White added.
He and other panelists commented on the proposed document during a Nov. 1 dialogue, “Catholic Faith, Communion and Public Life: Voices in the United States and a Report From the Vatican,” sponsored by the Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.
White noted that when the bishops meet in Baltimore Nov. 15-18, they will meet in executive session the first day, followed by two days of public sessions. Executive sessions have customarily been reserved for the last days of the meeting.
He said this was “so that they can craft some real consensus or compromise” on the Eucharist document. But, he predicted, “you’re going to have some bishops taking to the floor of the Baltimore Marriott (with) some strong things to say that contradict what Pope Francis has said.”
The pope has urged the U.S. bishops to take a pastoral approach on the issue of Communion and abortion rather than wade into the political sphere.
A draft of the statement, titled “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” obtained by The Pillar and published Nov. 3 by the Catholic website, shows that in its current form — without amendments — the document does not specifically call out Biden and other Catholic politicians who support abortion.
It focuses on how “the Eucharist is our greatest treasure as Catholics” and how it illustrates Christ’s sacrifice and is the real presence, not just a symbol.
Another panelist participating in the Nov. 1 dialogue, Gloria Purvis, a former radio host who hosts a podcast through America Media, asked when we are at Mass, “what are we offering of ourselves to the Lord? What is my obligation?”
“What is my offering to him if I go to receive the Eucharist? If I haven’t put into practice what I claim to believe,” she said, “how have I served the poor, how have I comforted the sick, visited the homeless. … How do I treat people in social media? What do my tweets say? Yes, God will judge you for your tweets.”
Purvis offered advice for the bishops. If they see someone “caught in the snares of the devil,” she said, “we don’t need to be yanked out of the snare, that does more harm than help.”
Instead, they should use “loving care to try to remove souls that are ensnared in these traps,” recommending that they “be like surgeons, removing that little bit that harms us … so that we can hold on to the faith, so that we are not damaged beyond repair.”
Theologian Carmen Nanko-Fernández laid the blame for the bishops’ impetus to draw up a Communion statement on the “flawed data” from a 2019 Pew Research Center survey question: The results showed just 30 percent of Catholics “a proper understanding” of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
The survey’s conclusions, she said, were “based on a small sampling of Roman Catholics, some Roman Catholics did not understand the Real Presence.” But then “one bishop launched a Twitter tirade about it, it’s disturbing on so many levels,” she added.
Nanko-Fernández, a professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, also faulted the bishops for their “top-down” approach on the issue. “It appears to be out of step or ignoring the clarion call right now from Pope Francis calling us to synodality,” she said.
Sister Mary Bader, a Daughter of Charity, who runs St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth, and Families in suburban Washington — a ministry founded 160 years ago one block from the White House — said that what she and others do at St. Ann’s is “bring the Eucharist to life by serving one another. That’s very simplistic, but I’m not a theologian.”
She added, “We don’t need to hear theologians now. It has to be something we can understand and the average person can understand and feel.”
Purvis said citizens hold politicians accountable by voting them out of office if voters don’t like how they voted. But that accountability goes “across the board” and is not limited to one issue, she added.
“I would also like to ask every bishop: What are their policies, practices and procedures in the diocese that actually enable us to live as we say we’re supposed to live?” Purvis said. “How do we operate in a way for every employee to live that out in a way that we believe?”
Nanko-Fernández returned to the synodality argument.
“One of the benefits of synodality is an attempt to ensure as many people as possible are at the metaphorical table,” she said. “When bishops talk as pastors, they’re not from above the people, they’re coming as one of the people,” akin to Pope Francis saying early in his pontificate that we must “smell like the sheep” in order to truly accompany people.
“Look at how synodality is practiced in the United States, as some people haven’t even been called to the metaphorical cable,” Nanko-Fernandez said, adding there is a lack of “listening that must precede these conversations for them to be fruitful.”
Panelists expressed their sympathy to Pope Francis.
“One of the best pastors and theologians we have today is Pope Francis,” Nanko-Fernández said. “Because he is pastoral and accessible, people don’t give him credit for being a theologian.”
“Pope Francis has engaged in trying to give every single person in the church and those outside the church to have their say and to be listened to,” White said. “If that story isn’t told, it’s because we reporters are being distracted by the fact that the president of the United States is sort of in the crosshairs of the U.S. bishops. That’s what get clicks.”