ROME – In a seemingly dramatic decision this week, three-quarters of America’s bishops voted to move ahead with a controversial document on the Eucharist despite objections that it could disrupt church unity and set the stage for a fatal showdown with US President Joe Biden.
The key word in that sentence, however, is “seemingly,” because in the Catholic Church, things are rarely quite as they seem.
Media coverage styled the vote on the document as a referendum on whether Biden and other pro-choice Catholic politicians, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, should be allowed to receive communion, and there were certainly enough semi-veiled references to that question during floor debate to support the impression.
Yet it’s important to remember what the bishops actually were told they were deciding: Whether to draft a pastoral document on the Eucharist, at a time when all indications are that both attendance at Sunday Mass and belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist are on the decline.
According to a 2019 Pew Forum survey, only about one-third of US Catholics believe the bread and wine they receive at Mass is physically the body and blood of Christ, which is a fairly stunning defection from a key tenet of the Catholic faith. Lots of bishops are concerned about that situation – indeed, it would be fairly surprising if any weren’t.
Yes, the draft also will contain a section on “Eucharistic coherence,” meaning the conditions under which a given Catholic is eligible to receive the sacrament. Depending on the language, that may well have implications for Biden, Pelosi, and others, though Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, head of the doctrine committee that will draft the text, took pains to emphasize that no individual will be named and it won’t address whether Biden himself should be administered communion.
Indeed, even if the document tried to address Biden’s specific situation, it wouldn’t mean very much, since under church law a bishops’ conference has no power to decide such matters. It’s always up to the individual bishop to set policy for Catholic worship in his diocese, including the celebration of the sacraments.
As a result, there may well have been many prelates among the 168 who voted to approve drafting the document who either have no opinion on giving communion to Biden, or who are actually against communion bans.
In that regard, it’s worth recalling that the last time this became a hot-button national issue was in 2004, when the Democratic nominee was John Kerry, another pro-choice Catholic. While plenty of bishops criticized Kerry’s stand on abortion, only a handful publicly announced that he would be unwelcome to receive communion in their diocese.
Whether, and to what extent, the sands have shifted between 2004 and today is not yet clear, and it wasn’t revealed in this week’s vote. That will be impossible to assess until November, when the doctrine committee is slated to put an actual draft document before the full body of bishops for a vote.
Honestly, even that may not fully resolve the issue, depending on how anodyne or compromise-laden the language on Eucharistic coherence turns out to be.
In fact, if the bishops were voting against anyone this week, for many of them it probably wasn’t so much Joe Biden as us in the media.
From the beginning, media coverage framed the decision over the document as a referendum on banning Biden from communion, and that wasn’t entirely a fabrication. There were bishops on both sides – Archbishops Salvatore Cordileone and Joseph Naumann on the “yes” side and Cardinals Blase Cupich, Joseph Tobin and Wilton Gregory for “no” – who left little doubt what they believe is ultimately at stake.
Yet also from the beginning, the actual proponents of the document, principally Rhoades, insisted the framing was wrong and that real agenda is pastoral rather than political.
Consider Bishop Douglas Lucia of Syracuse.
“The primary purpose of this proposed document is to welcome Catholics back to Mass after the pandemic and to accompany the Eucharistic Revival project that will begin in the U.S. Church next summer,” Lucia said. “Hence the media is missing the point; this document is only in its drafting stage and will be accompanied by consultation with a variety of persons, including politicians.”
In other words, that three-quarters vote could reflect frustration and an unwillingness to allow the media to dictate the bishops’ agenda more than a consensus on whether the President of the United States should be turned away in a communion line.
Three footnotes to the story are worth adding.
First, a top Biden aide, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is scheduled to be in Rome next week and will have meetings in the Vatican, though it’s not yet clear if his schedule will include Pope Francis. Though the agenda is foreign policy, not Biden’s ecclesiastical status, observers nevertheless will be interested to gauge how warm a welcome Blinken receives.
Second, Biden has not yet named an ambassador to the Vatican, and generally those nominations are made by early summer when a new administration takes over. This week’s kerfuffle is a reminder of how carefully he may need to thread the needle if his desire is to send a Catholic Democrat with a pro-choice record. While the Vatican might not necessarily balk at such a choice, one can imagine Catholic reaction in the States.
Finally, Biden currently is projected to attend a G-20 summit in Rome in late October, and, should that happen, it’s also widely expected that he would meet Pope Francis. Coincidentally, that encounter would be happening just ahead of the US bishops’ fateful vote on the Eucharist document.
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