Peter Steinfels’s article “Separate Challenges: The bishops, the Eucharist, and abortion” (September 2021) poses a challenge not merely to the bishops, but to the whole people of God. It is the challenge to appropriate and to realize our Eucharistic identity as the Body of Christ. Indeed, Steinfels endorses Timothy O’Malley’s claim that “the whole Church is a Eucharistic reality.”
The proximate occasion of Steinfels’s article is the proposed document on “Eucharistic coherence” being drafted by the Doctrinal Committee of the United States Bishops Conference. Steinfels proposes that what Catholics need is not a document on the Eucharist, but rather “a pastoral strategy on the Eucharist.” In support of this stance, Steinfels cites a 2019 Pew survey that found that only 31 percent of Catholics believe that at Mass the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” To his great credit Steinfels takes this sobering fact seriously. Hence his contention that “what is needed is not another doctrinal statement on Real Presence but a strategy that would reverse the decades-long decline in weekly worship.”
This is where he finds O’Malley’s insights helpful. Among those insights is the imperative that “every aspect of our lives become Eucharistic.” Hence the need to create “a Eucharistic culture of affiliation” that moves beyond liturgical worship to embrace the entirety of the believer’s life, personal, social, and political. Moreover, an examination of conscience regarding Eucharistic coherence is incumbent not only on the individual believer, but upon parish and diocese as well. Eucharistic celebration and Eucharistic reception are not private, but public and corporate: the privileged manifestation of the Body of Christ.
I fully endorse all these principles. Indeed, over the years I have maintained that, as a constitutive dimension of Christian faith, one can and must become, with God’s grace, a “Eucharistic self”: one who embodies a Eucharistic consciousness and practice. Hence the following observations are intended not to counter Steinfels’s proposal, but to press it further, to suggest the magnitude of the challenge and the commitment required.
To speak of “declining belief in the Real Presence” or “disaffiliation” from the Church does not yet meet the full seriousness of what we face. There is a yet deeper disaffiliation. It may be broached by posing the question: Whose “real presence” are we talking about? If the Eucharist is an encounter with the living person of Jesus Christ, then disaffiliation from the Eucharistic liturgy is defection from Jesus Christ himself.
Decades of theological and cultural questioning of the salvific uniqueness of Christ have conspired to promote a de facto “apostasy”—a turning away from Jesus Christ as Savior of the world. If the stark term “apostasy” seems excessive, one need only attend to the unsentimental witness of the New Testament itself. The Gospel of John speaks of those who turned back because of Jesus’s “hard saying” (John 6:66), while the Letter to the Hebrews sadly laments those who “forsake the assembly” (Hebrews 10:25).