Eucharistic Issue Addressed by Both Sides of Debate

A look at the USCCB debate over politicians and the Eucharist

The issue of receiving the Eucharist at Mass has rarely been as controversial as in the past week. Following the decision by the Catholic Bishops of the United States to release a document on the Eucharist later in the year, the week ended with great consternation by some and celebration by others for the bishops’ actions. The issue is central now because of the election of President Joe Biden the second Catholic to hold the office and a strong supporter of legalized abortion.

The official statement from the USCCB press office did not indicate what specifically the document would include:

The full body of bishops also voted to task the Committee on Doctrine to move forward with the drafting of a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church. Requiring a simple majority vote for approval, the action item passed with 168 votes in favor, 55 against, and 6 abstentions.

The final document may be available after the November meeting, the second of two annual meetings the bishops hold.

The gathering included powerful nuances especially from the opening statement to the meeting from Papal Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre.

Papal Nuncio offered thoughts from Pope Francis

In an address to the Catholic Bishops of the United States, Pierre quoted Pope Francis and spoke of the Catholic faith rooted in a relationship with the risen Christ and not a product to be consumed. He said today people look for an aesthetic of religion but what they need to experience is the true person who is Jesus Christ. “I believe that one has to recover the religious act as a movement towards an encounter with Jesus Christ.” He explained, quoting the Pontiff.

Citing what may be a common misconception of the meaning of Catholicism, the Archbishop explained that when we divorce ourselves from the core of our message in order to be a political force, we lose our vitality and existential interest.

When Christianity is reduced to custom, to moral norms, to social rituals, it loses, sooner rather than later, its vitality and its existential interest for the men and women of our day, particularly for those who are looking for hope after the pandemic; for those seeking authentic justice after the racial strife we have experienced; or for those who have come here seeking a brighter and safer future. It is one thing to meet the material needs of the poor, but Christianity offers more than an NGO or a social service organization. The Church offers salvation in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Archbishop continued warning against forming a moral Catholicism divorced from the relationship with Christ: “When Christian morality asserts itself without Jesus Christ, even though the theological and philosophical conclusions might be correct, it does not penetrate the heart in a way that leads to conversion.”

Pierre as Papal Nuncio is Pope Francis’ representative to the United States. He differentiates between Catholicism as a set of moral values and a relationship with God through the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Explaining Jesus’ method of when he was walking the Earth, the papal nuncio explained that conversion is made through encounter.

The method is clear: to encounter; to accompany; to love; to engage in respectful dialogue; and to challenge without crushing, in the hope of deeper conversion. Jesus used the same method in his encounter with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10). Jesus was conveniently passing by when he saw Zacchaeus in that sycamore tree. Although Zacchaeus had many possessions, he was hated by his own people, but with insistence, Jesus called him, “Come down from that tree. Today, I must stay at your house.” Jesus spent time with him, and at the end of the day, Zacchaeus was a changed man.

He called the bishops to form a faith that is based on this encounter and one that leads to unity.

I am firmly convinced that emerging from the pandemic, we need to be a Church that proclaims, with conviction, the basic kerygma and the person of Jesus Christ, and we need to be a Church that follows the method of Jesus, which is one of accompaniment and dialogue, a dialogue directed toward salvation.

Bishops’ authority and politicians’ actions

This issue of pro-abortion politicians receiving the Eucharist was a key focus in the meeting. Some bishops lamented their authority is challenged by these politicians' actions while others warned the focus would lead to a politicization of the eucharist.

President Joseph Biden, a lifelong Catholic and Democrat endorsed strongly pro-abortion legislation. This, according to some, means by canon law he must refrain from the Eucharist. Catholic teaching considers rejecting abortion a sine qua non to her faith.

The bishops voted in favor of putting forth a future document still in process that catechizes what we believe as Catholics. It remains to be seen whether it will instruct on those who may and may not present themselves for receiving the Eucharist at a Catholic Mass although they clearly do not intend that to be their intention. 

Catholic members of the Democratic party responded angrily. The bishops however said that the document should be more a teaching document and used to assist in putting together policy for each particular diocese. It is not designed to be a national policy naming who should and should not receive the Eucharist. 

Archbishop Naumann, however, made it clear the issue is not as much a position on abortion as much as a change in terminology. He explained that it was once called a choice, now it is a right determined by a previous administration. 

They talk about it as a right, that’s what our president talks about it as a right. And this really evolved when under a previous administration, when he was the vice president when abortion became not by an act of Congress, not by a court, but by a regulation, declared as medical care, and it’s out of this context. That this president now says, that’s a right and therefore

Everybody is going to have to pay taxes for this. As we see the attack on the Hyde Amendment. Everybody has to be implicated in it and this is a Catholic President that’s doing this the most aggressive we have ever seen . . .

Backlash and support from the laity

Rep Ted Lieu a self-proclaimed Catholic castigated the bishops on Twitter for focusing on abortion while not addressing other sins considered cause to refrain from the Eucharist.

“Are you going to deny Communion to Catholic athletes who use condoms? Or deny Communion to Catholic Olympic organizers for handing out condoms? Or deny Communion to Catholics who believe people should have the right to decide if they want to use contraception?” he tweeted. 

He also dared the bishops to deny him communion.

I’m Catholic and I support: -Contraception -A woman’s right to choose -Treatments for infertility -The right for people to get a divorce -The right of same sex marriage Next time I go to Church, I dare you to deny me Communion.

Other national figures including Sheriff David Clarke supported the actions of the Bishops of the United States:

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops need to make it clear that their position on abortion is NOT negotiable. If it’s ok to kill babies, then there IS no such thing as sin. Communion or NO communion.

A host of Catholic members of Congress including Representative Lieu released a statement explaining their position on the issue. The statement included:

We envision a world in which every child belongs to a loving family and agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life. Each of us is committed to reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies to be carried to term and provide resources to raise healthy and secure children. We believe this includes promoting alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, improving access to children’s healthcare and child care, and creating a child benefit through the expanded and improved Child Tax Credit.

In all these issues, we seek the Church’s guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience. In recognizing the Church’s role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas. We recognize that no political party is perfectly in accord with all aspects of Church doctrine. This fact speaks to the secular nature of American democracy, not the devotion of our democratically elected leaders. Yet we believe we can speak to the fundamental issues that unite us as Catholics and lend our voices to changing the political debate — a debate that often fails to reflect and encompass the depth and complexity of these issues.

The content and fruit of the final document will remain to be seen after its release in late autumn.

If you are living in the Boston area, a group of us will be discussing Archbishop Christophe Pierre’s letter to the US bishops at 7:00pm June 29th at St. Anthony rectory/43 Holton St./Allston, MA.