Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.
The American bishops have two teaching challenges. One is about the Eucharist. The other is about abortion. They are distinct topics, even if at one narrow point they overlap. Trying to address them together will only harm them both.
Catholics do not need a document on the Eucharist. We need a pastoral strategy on the Eucharist. Catholics may also need a new strategy on abortion. Certainly the current, decades-old strategy, with its emphasis on changing the law, has not worked. A document on abortion is in fact in order, but only if it reflects a Church learning as much as a Church teaching.
Let me elaborate on the Eucharist and abortion separately. I understand the distress of bishops at the 2019 Pew survey finding that only 31 percent of self-identified Catholics believe that at Mass the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” By contrast, 69 percent told the Pew pollsters that the bread and wine are “symbols” of Christ’s body and blood. All Catholics—liberals no less than conservatives—should be distressed at those findings, as I argued in a Commonweal article two years ago (“More than a Symbol,” December 16, 2019). In that article I acknowledged the difficulties of all our polling on this subject, including not only the Pew survey but also a poll I had helped design at the New York Times. Other polls, formulating their questions differently, have produced less alarming results; but none provides any grounds for complacency about the state of Catholics’ belief in the Real Presence.
Still, it is disingenuous to cite the Pew findings about how Catholics understand the Mass, which some bishops did, as somehow reflecting the impact of pro-choice Catholic politicians, above all the one now in the White House. Of course, I can’t know for sure, but I think it’s almost certain that Joe Biden is one of Pew’s 31 percent of Catholics who believe what the Church teaches about the Eucharist. If belief in the Real Presence were the real focus of the current agitation, why not hold Biden up for emulation?
It is no less baseless—in fact, it is insulting—to claim, as even some moderate conservatives have done, that a great many of those participating in the Eucharist are doing so for purely social reasons. If there is one thing we know about belief in the Real Presence, it is that it correlates with regular Mass attendance. Catechesis about the Blessed Sacrament may be called for, but no catechesis appears to be as effective as the liturgy itself.
What is needed, therefore, is not another doctrinal statement on Real Presence but a strategy that would reverse the decades-long decline in weekly worship. Pertinent here are two recent articles that appeared in Church Life Journal, which is published by Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life. They are both by Timothy O’Malley, director of education at the McGrath Institute and academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. I don’t know O’Malley or whether he is a red theologian or a blue theologian or a purple one. Nor do I care.
The more recent article is titled “What’s at Stake in the Debates Swirling Around Eucharistic Coherence.” Of the many points O’Malley makes, I would underline these: “The Eucharist is not reducible to the sacramental grace given to the individual who receives the Blessed Sacrament.” That is, the Eucharist is an ecclesial, communal reality, a public manifestation of Christ’s love for all. In eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood we pledge to put ourselves totally at the service of this love. As O’Malley writes, “Every aspect of our lives must become Eucharistic.”
“Now, every Catholic,” he continues, “knows the gravity of this task. We are sinners.” In ways small or large, we all live anti-Eucharistic forms of life. True, the Eucharist is a medicine for us; but, especially in grievous cases, this healing grace does not erase the incoherence of our reception. And here O’Malley adds a crucial point: “Eucharistic coherence—because the whole Church is a Eucharistic reality—is not merely a private affair. The parish and the diocese alike can manifest a Eucharistic incoherence.” He cites the obvious examples: the sex-abuse scandal, clericalism, the capitulation to partisan polarization over issues like racism and abortion, the parish’s failure to embrace outsiders or returnees, the rote manner of celebrating the liturgy.
O’Malley does not ignore the challenge of Eucharistic coherence for the Catholic politician, who “cannot be Catholic on Sundays and engage in the worst vices of the political class the rest of the week.” In principle, such a person could be denied the Eucharist, though prudence might rule otherwise. (Regrettably, O’Malley does not expand on what he calls the Catholic politician’s “Eucharistic vocation to consecrate the world in love” in the context of a pluralist society’s deep divisions over something like abortion.)