I agree with the editors of Commonweal that USCCB president Archbishop José Gomez’s ill-considered response to the election of Joe Biden invites the assumption that the bishops’ planned document on the Eucharist is aimed at him (“Pastors, Not Prophets,” July/August). But in operating on that assumption, I think the editors err by giving too binary and reductionist a reading of the bishops’ recent meeting and the purpose of the document they voted to produce.
I watched the first ninety minutes of day two of the bishops’ meeting during which twenty-two of them spoke; only two referenced Biden by name or office. So while the election of the second Catholic as president of the United States may have occasioned their concerns about pro-choice politicians and the Eucharist, I think it is wrong to presume, as did the New York Times and other secular media, that a vote in favor of issuing a document next fall was a vote against the president. Indeed, to suppose that some two hundred forty Catholic bishops are all of one mind or the other on such a complex weave of moral, political, and pastoral concerns is intellectually untenable.
Still, there are other and better reasons for wondering why the bishops waited until Biden’s election to worry about how the reception of Holy Communion by pro-choice politicians “scandalizes” the faithful, as one bishop put it. After all, since Roe v. Wade prominent Catholic politicians from Ted Kennedy to John Kerry, and current Democratic congressional leaders from Nancy Pelosi to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have all advertised their pro-choice bona fides. Like them, Biden has never explained why, as he moved up the party hierarchy, he systematically jettisoned his previous pro-life principles, including his abandonment of the Hyde Amendment just before the 2020 primaries.
The reasons are obvious: he had to if he wanted the Democratic nomination. The party apparatus has made it abundantly clear that pro-life candidates are no longer welcome and the handful of pro-life Democrats still holding national office are denied seats on choice committees. Conversely, the Republicans have gladly embraced the pro-life position—some because they are committed to it and others, especially since Trump, for its purely transactional political value. Such is the ugly politics of abortion.
The American bishops may be politically obtuse, as the editors charge, but then their own editorial offers no guidance on how to undo this Gordian knot. In the meantime, I think it is pastorally necessary for the conference to craft a document that explains what is expected of all Catholics, not just politicians, who want to receive Holy Communion, and—especially—the reasons why.
There was a time when most Catholics understood that they should refrain from receiving the Eucharist if they were guilty of serious unconfessed sin. Such knowledge and self-discipline can no longer be expected. Indeed, as polls have shown over recent decades, a great many U.S. Catholics have no idea whether Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is real or symbolic or just a liturgical remembrance.
Whatever the USCCB’s proposed document says, it will still be up to the local bishop to decide whether a Catholic politician who supports abortion on demand should be barred from the Eucharist. This is as it should be. It seems to me there is a marked difference between a circumspect Joe Biden or, for that matter, a Daniel Patrick Moynihan and a pro-choice trumpet like, say, Rep. Rosa DeLauro. The virtue required of bishops here is not just prudence but discernment.
Finally, I must dissent entirely from the editorial’s confused final paragraph for several reasons. First, it takes no account of the fact that the future of abortion rights is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. Second, even if Roe is declared unconstitutional, the most likely outcome would be a checkerboard of states that do or do not restrict abortion in one way or another. Ideally, the rejection of Roe would lead to something like the European solutions, which try to balance the rights of the fetus with the rights of pregnant women. At the very least, the federal government should not fund a procedure that so divides the nation. Let those who support abortion rights privately provide for the funding of the procedure. Likewise, the Catholic Church and others who find abortion morally intolerable should provide financial and other aid to women in need who opt not to terminate their pregnancies. At least we can dream, can’t we?
THE EDITORS REPLY:
We thank Kenneth Woodward for his letter, which makes several good points, none of which contradict our editorial. Woodward is right to challenge the inconsistency and apparent opportunism of President Biden’s position on abortion as it has evolved over the decades, but that is not what our editorial was about. Nor did we argue that “some two hundred forty Catholic bishops are all of just one mind or the other on such a complex weave of moral, political, and pastoral concerns.” We knew very well when we wrote the editorial that fifty-five bishops had voted against the proposal to draft a document on the Eucharist, with six others abstaining. It’s obvious, to us and everyone else, that not all the U.S. bishops are of “one mind” on the matter.
Why would that many bishops vote against the proposed document? Perhaps it’s because, as Woodward acknowledges, Archbishop José Gomez’s response to Joe Biden’s election has generally been “ill-considered,” which means that the document—whatever form it finally takes—will remain inextricably linked to the question of Biden and Communion. That does not mean, as Woodward correctly notes, “that a vote in favor of issuing a document next fall, was a vote against the president.” Indeed, the document may turn out to be little more than a reminder of what is expected of Catholics who want to receive Communion. Even so, this episode would still fit a troubling pattern of erratic, counterproductive political gambits from the USCCB under Gomez’s leadership: tone-deaf statements that eventually are walked back; working groups that cause a stir and are disbanded a few months later; disputes about the new president that are softened into questions of “Eucharistic coherence.”
We hope our editorial provided a way to think about these matters that is more helpful than some of the more familiar ones. Rather than argue against “weaponizing” the Eucharist or leaning on a facile public/private distinction, we underscored that “translating even very important moral proscriptions into laws is a complicated matter, requiring prudence and admitting of disagreement.” This is precisely the approach that will be needed if, as Woodward hopes, the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade. That event would require a humble, prudent response from Catholic leaders as they navigated the complexity of different legislative proposals in different states. To repurpose Woodward’s phrase, there is no way to loose the “Gordian knot” of abortion politics all at once. It will require patience, careful distinctions, and a willingness to engage with the unpersuaded.