“Of all the instruments to use to coerce a politician…the Eucharist!” My friend, a senior Vatican official from Latin America, blurted out his shock as we discussed the majority vote at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in June in favor of a document on “eucharistic coherence.” My friend was scandalized that the Eucharist could be deployed as a weapon of persuasion or coercion—or indeed, any kind of weapon—against politicians. He saw it as a power move, all the more repellent because, he said, it was born of frustration at the Church’s failure to persuade the culture at large of its pro-life message.
The next day the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops insisted its document would not, after all, be aimed at any politicians in particular, or even in general. The USCCB made clear that the “Document on the Meaning of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” was in fact intended to “reignite Eucharistic faith in our country” in the face of evidence of declining belief and understanding among the faithful, and would contain “no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians.” On his blog, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston explained that bishops who had originally envisaged the document as “dealing with public figures and the reception of the Eucharist” had, “in light of instructions from the Holy See,” changed their focus to “the question of preparedness and Eucharistic consistency.”
The “instructions” had come a few weeks earlier, when the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith expressed his concerns, urging caution and time to build consensus. This inspired a letter from sixty-seven U.S. bishops, who proposed that the USCCB postpone discussion of it until they could meet in person. But the USCCB’s president, Archbishop José Gomez, disagreed, and the bishops voted overwhelmingly at the June 16–18 online meeting to proceed with writing the document.
The claim that it will not target politicians is hard to square with the speeches in its favor. More than one bishop had stood up to deplore Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi by name, and other bishops who voted in favor of the document have since made clear this is precisely what it is about. A full month after the USCCB walk-back, for example, Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa issued a letter to his flock explaining why a politician who professes to be Catholic and “supports the evil of abortion” should be denied Communion. It is, of course, a matter of record that in January a document on “eucharistic coherence” was proposed by a USCCB working group precisely in response to the election of a pro-choice Catholic to the nation’s highest office. The document that emerges in November may claim that its purpose is not to discipline politicians, but few doubt that it will be used to do so. And because it will be used in this way, the proposed document threatens to overturn a core plank of the Church’s engagement with public life since the Second Vatican Council—namely, the freedom of the politician’s conscience.
The “scandal” some of the bishops seek to address is that President Biden, a practicing Catholic, appears to be at odds with the USCCB on the one issue it has described as “pre-eminent.” To be clear: Biden does not question the Church’s moral teaching on abortion, and says that he is personally pro-life. But he does not support the criminalization of abortion. This is not very unusual. Many politicians might like to legislate against something they find morally abhorrent, but know they can’t. This is probably not the only issue where President Biden’s Catholic convictions do not readily translate into government policies. But abortion is the only issue the bishops in favor of banning Biden from Communion seem to care about, despite Cardinal Ladaria’s letter to Archbishop Gomez warning that accountability on Catholic moral and social teaching cannot be reduced to that issue alone. (The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the same thing back in 1994, in its doctrinal “note” on the participation of Catholics in public life. “The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine,” it warned.)