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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.)
Yet “denying the Eucharist to that person would therefore not be an occasion for partisan bickering in the Church, for the kind of schadenfreude that often accompanies the defeating of an ‘enemy.’” Because it bears witness to the communal and public dimensions of the Eucharist, it should be “an occasion for every member of the Church to examine his or her Eucharistic coherence.”
O’Malley urged that kind of examination in an earlier essay on how the Church might create a “Eucharistic culture of affiliation” to counter the apparently relentless drift of young and not-so-young people away from Catholic life and identification. It is this disaffiliation that I maintain is at the root of declining belief, however it is measured, in the Real Presence. O’Malley warns against a “liturgical naiveté” that assumes some jiggering of the Sunday liturgy, whether to be more inclusive or more traditional, will solve the problem of disaffiliation. That assumption ignores the fact that the half of one percent of the week that most Catholics spend in formative Eucharistic liturgy must compete with many more hours of being formed, or malformed, by secular “cultural liturgies,” whether these are patriotic, professional, athletic, whether they are watching cable TV or staring for hours at digital devices. Likewise, ritual action alone, apart from a larger pattern of regular practices, does not create a worldview, an ethos, a genuine affiliation. O’Malley illustrates those larger patterns of behavior by the routines of monasticism or, amusingly, those of the O’Malley household as Fighting Irish football fans.
“If we are to cultivate a Eucharistic renewal, one that contributes to deeper affiliation with the Church, it will require more than the celebration of the liturgy.... Eucharistic affiliation is not the same as showing up to Mass. Even catechesis around the doctrine of real presence is insufficient for a robust affiliation with the Eucharistic Church.” Parishes must foster a Eucharistic culture in the world. “Neighborhoods, towns, cities, rural hamlets are to become spaces of Eucharistic love.”
O’Malley describes typical ways in which parishes fall short of this Eucharistic culture, on the one hand, and “signposts” of an effective “Eucharistic culture of affiliation,” on the other. The signposts include: liturgical reverence, even in the myriad styles of different communities; a “holistic” Eucharistic formation (“not reducible to explaining the doctrines of real presence and transubstantiation, no matter how important these doctrines are”); both a public and domestic striving to infuse all life beyond the Sunday celebration—family, work, and citizenship—with sacrificial love; and finally an exercise of solidarity promoting the common good and flourishing of all.
That list scarcely hints at O’Malley’s insights. To me, they all point to his insistence that “a culture of Eucharistic affiliation requires that every diocese, parish, and school undertake a process of self-examination.” Or again, in his conclusion, “If the Church is to experience the kind of renewal that leads to deeper affiliation, it will require every parish, diocese, and school to assess, promote, and develop Eucharistic culture(s).” When I said that the Church needs a pastoral strategy on the Eucharist, not another document, this is what I had in mind.
In fact, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is currently embarking on a 2021–2024 “Strategic Plan” under the banner “Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope.” The USCCB regularly draws up strategic plans outlining objectives and activities for the conference’s scores of committees and agencies and a long list of affiliated organizations. The disconcerting Pew findings almost certainly influenced the choice to give the 2021–2024 strategic plan a Eucharistic name. Yet among more than two dozen “highlights” of this plan described in a USCCB listing, only one focuses on the Eucharist in the way one might expect from its title. That is a proposal for a National Eucharistic Congress in 2024, to be preceded by “work at every level of Church: the parish, the diocese, the region, and the nation—to reevaluate all of her activities from the celebration of the Mass and the preaching of a homily to its ministries, social programs, evangelization of the unaffiliated, and advocacy in the public square.” The process would begin with “best practices for parish renewal” and pay as much attention to worship, devotion, and ministry as to catechesis and apologetics. All of which sounds similar to O’Malley’s recommendation. None of which is rooted in the agitation about pro-choice politicians.
On the final day of the bishops’ June meeting, what one might call a variant of that process was successfully floated, a nebulous proposal for a Eucharistic Revival Project, “a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country.” The USCCB underlined this “revival project” in trying to reassure everyone that of course its decision to draft a document on the Eucharist had nothing to do with penalizing Joe Biden and other pro-choice Catholic politicians.
How much will the Eucharistic Revival Project resemble the earlier sketch of preparation for a National Eucharist Congress? Auxiliary Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of St. Paul and Minneapolis will lead the effort as chairman of the USCCB Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. He hopes to recruit a “national corps of eucharistic preachers” to speak at diocesan and regional events and train one hundred thousand “eucharistic missionaries” for parish revivals. This has a familiar ring: stronger on exhortation than evaluation, on individual conversion than institutional coherence, reminiscent of the parish missions or retreats of yore. Bishop Cozzens, who himself had a youthful experience in a charismatically inclined missionary movement, speaks of “transformational experiences” and spiritually charged special events like World Youth Days or World Family Day. “This is why married couples need to celebrate anniversaries and go on trips together to rekindle their love,” he said. “And we have to do the same thing with the Eucharist. Every now and then the Church has to remind herself of the magnitude and the greatness of this gift.”
All well and good. Who can say with certainty what will rekindle Eucharistic faith? Or, in O’Malley’s terms, what will create “Eucharistic cultures”? He too speaks of a needed “revival,” but one that will “assess, promote, and develop” such cultures within existing structures rather than by adding a movement or grand event. (Aren’t the “cultures” of successful marriages based on patterns of daily living rather than periodic anniversary celebrations?)
My own view is that we should just begin with O’Malley’s first verb in that series: “assess.” The bishops should focus their intelligence and energy on undertaking “a process of self-examination” and outlining ways and standards by which parishes, dioceses, and, I would add, other Catholic organizations might assess their existing Eucharistic cultures. I can imagine all sorts of ways: surveys of pastors and parishioners, focus groups, visiting diocesan teams that actually observed Sunday liturgies and inquired into their impact on other parish and parishioner activities. It would be closer to what was sketched in the strategic plan’s run-up to a Eucharistic Congress: the thorough-going reevaluation of all “activities from the celebration of the Mass and the preaching of a homily to its ministries, social programs, evangelization of the unaffiliated, and advocacy in the public square.” The bishops could create a menu of possibilities for identifying strengths (“best practices for parish renewal”) and weaknesses, especially in regard to disaffiliation. That would be the initial step toward a multi-faceted, multi-year pastoral strategy.
As for the separate task of addressing abortion, the bishops very much need a guiding document—for themselves, for the Church, for the public. It is not something they can accomplish, as the present timeline proposes, in five months. No need to rush. The moral, legal, political, and ecclesiastical issues surrounding abortion are not going away. They will not be resolved by a possible Supreme Court decision reversing or modifying Roe v. Wade or Planned Parenthood v. Casey. That will merely initiate a new chapter of public conflict. Nor will these issues be resolved by the current occupant of the White House or his successors. If they will be resolved at all, it will be only by a shift in the culture, which suggests the importance of what the bishops might say—and why they should take time and care in saying it.
The bishops’ model should be their drafting of pastoral letters in the 1980s, written in the spirit of being both a learning Church and a teaching Church. Choosing that model demands a prior decision. Do the bishops want to make a lasting contribution to moral and social struggles over abortion? Do they want to persuade and not just (futilely) command? Do they want truly to teach and not simply display their credentials to appease the current watchdogs of orthodoxy?
To prepare their pastoral letters on nuclear defense (1983) and economic justice (1986) and the abandoned letter on women’s issues (1988–92), the bishops invited representatives from a wide range of perspectives, as well as from the pews, to testify before their drafting committees. Today, for example, no bishop—certainly no bishop involved in drafting a document—should imagine addressing abortion effectively without having his beliefs tested against the reasoning of the most thoughtful leading exponents of pro-choice positions.
Likewise, no bishop should hope to contribute constructively without familiarizing himself with “How Americans Understand Abortion,” a sociological study also sponsored by Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute. A team of researchers led by Tricia Bruce conducted in-depth interviews with a representative microcosm of 217 ordinary Americans (21 percent Catholic). This study shows how poorly served we are by opinion surveys and political labels—and how distant the thinking of ordinary people about abortion is from the disciplined reasoning of thoughtful exponents on either side of the debate. Most Americans, the study found, avoid talking or thinking much about abortion. Their views on it are largely personal rather than political, often emotional, often inconsistent, frequently poorly informed, even about biology, and generally shaped more by the context of the pregnancy than the question of fetal life. The study provides valuable insights into how moral reasoning occurs in the minds of ordinary people rather than in seminary texts and philosophical classics, insights that could help the bishops frame the Church’s teaching in an effective manner. “How Americans Understand Abortion” suggests the need for what would be considered pre-theological or pre-philosophical discussion. Given the contextual character of much thinking about abortion, the study also suggests how disastrous it would be to mix anything that could be perceived as partisan politics with a moral argument.
A drafting committee of bishops determined to learn as well as teach could hear and question the sociologists who conducted this study, encouraging other bishops to read it themselves. Out of curiosity, I sent emails to the communications offices of nine out of the ten bishops on the USCCB’s Pro-Life Activities Committee explaining that I was interested in the study and asking if they were familiar with it and might have observations on it. Two replied through their communications directors. They were not familiar with the study and did not want to comment until seeing the draft of the letter planned for the conference’s November meeting. The others did not reply. I did not attempt the same inquiry with the members of the Doctrinal Committee, who will be writing the draft.
Would such “hearings,” like those conducted for the pastoral letters in the 1980s, be irrelevant to what is a clear Church teaching about abortion and possibly even erode it? No more than the testimony solicited by the bishops who drafted the pastoral letter on nuclear defense was irrelevant to the Church’s just-war theory or undermined it. On the contrary, such hearings would make clear what questions the Church’s case for the sacredness of all human life had to answer and where that case can and cannot find support in ordinary Americans’ profound ambivalence about abortion.
Such a drafting process would also make clear the dangers of a document like the recent pastoral letter on abortion from Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco. That letter begins with brief assertions of principle capped by an illustration of “what really happens in the ‘termination of a pregnancy,’ how violent it is.” There follows a gruesomely detailed description of the dismembering of “a 24-week old unborn baby.” Give the letter credit for acknowledging the late stage of this abortion, but not for neglecting to mention that most abortions take place at a much earlier point and are nothing at all like this. One can be morally horrified by the deliberate destruction of an unborn life at any stage and still feel emotionally manipulated and deceived by this grisly illustration. One wants to ascribe the choice to ignorance rather than dishonesty, but it would not go unnoticed in any document from the bishops.
The bishops’ objective, obviously, would be to make as clear and convincing a case as possible for the protection of unborn human lives. Their hope would be not only to reinforce this conviction among Catholics but also to persuade all Americans. Of course, that is not about to happen in the near future, and it is hard to believe the bishops don’t recognize that. If Roe and Casey were reversed, the backlash would simply move to states and localities. So while the Church strives to make its case by word and witness, what do the bishops urge for the meantime?
The question has three dimensions. What should the Church do within its own ranks? What should the Church ask of public policy? What should the Church seek by way of legal prohibition?
To start with the first question, attention has recently centered on whether to bar from Communion prominent defenders of legal access to abortion. In reality Catholic health-care and educational institutions have long struggled against pressures to facilitate such access. Schools, parishes, and dioceses organize anti-abortion prayers, education, lobbying, and protests of different sorts. Catholic Charities and dedicated Catholic volunteers provide time, skills, and funds to assist pregnant women seeking an alternative to abortion. Is there any greater collective response to troubled pregnancies that might manifest the Church’s commitment to preserving unborn lives?
The answer to that question probably overlaps with the answer to the question about public policy. Fordham University theologian Charles Camosy has recently argued that “common ground on abortion is staring us right in the face.” A self-styled “purple” theologian, Camosy agrees with the bishops’ controversial designation of opposition to abortion as a “preeminent priority.” He has written an impassioned “Open Letter to Pope Francis,” urging him to bring his oft-stated opposition to abortion “into a more central place of [his] pontificate.” What Camosy sees as common ground in the United States are government policies supporting women and the children they would choose to bear rather than to abort. Democrats might be naturally inclined to such measures while, in Camosy’s view, a few Republicans are awakening to the possibility of making pregnant women and their needs a “centerpiece of public policy.” He cites the “Care for Her Act,” introduced by Republican Rep. Jim Fortenberry, that would, among other things, make the unborn child eligible for the $3,600 child tax credit. What Camosy wants from the pope is to consider leading worldwide campaigns for “increased health care, child care, familial support, protection from violence, and education for women—while at the same time calling for equal protection of the law for their children, regardless of age.”
That common ground may be harder to find in the United States than Camosy supposes. And a papal campaign might be less productive than he imagines. But the bishops could learn from him. The chances of getting a hearing from both Catholics and non-Catholics would be much greater if the bishops’ letter paired arguments for prohibition with large, generous, and positive proposals to support the needs of mothers.
Finally, the bishops have to confront more frankly and thoroughly than they ever have the unavoidable question of the relationship between law and morality, particularly in a nation where large portions of the citizenry are deeply and sincerely divided about the nature of fetal life, the protection it deserves, and whether the pregnant woman should have a privileged role in deciding those matters. Like the bishops I believe that biology, morality, and logic lead to the conclusion that the developing embryo from its early stages deserves the same protection from deliberate destruction as a newborn. (I have reservations about the “moment of conception” language.) But it is all too easy for those of us firmly convinced of this truth to view all other views as without any force or persuasive power, especially as these views have often been reduced by pro-choice activists themselves to easily refutable bumper sticker slogans. The effect, reinforced by constant resort to references to “babies” and the imagery of mutilated fetuses well beyond the point of most abortions, is to obscure the unlikelihood of our reaching a consensus anytime soon that unborn lives are as worthy of protection as born ones.
The bishops, of course, should make the most powerful case that they can, not only for the inviolability of unborn lives but for the legal protection that necessarily follows. They should aim at persuading as many Americans as possible of the strength of their position—another reason for not rushing their work, and for thoroughly acquainting themselves with opposing arguments. But they also have to consider the options if they fall short. What kind of legal protection for the unborn can be erected on the basis of what kind of widespread agreement?
They cannot answer this question without considering the risks of backlash. If the Supreme Court were to reverse Roe and Casey, or uphold the Mississippi ban on abortion after fifteen weeks, a backlash would be inevitable. It would roil politics and even Catholic life at every level. Both pro-choice and pro-life advocates would probably steel themselves for an unending battle. The bishops may see no other option; opposing abortion would remain their “preeminent priority.” But they might also envision another resolution, one that brings the moral and the legal closer together without pretending that, in the near term at least, they can be made to coincide. Whatever the court does, deep and passionate disagreement will continue, and the bishops would do well to address this prospect.
Is there any point in making a case for a Eucharistic pastoral strategy rather than a doctrinal document, a strategy beginning with honest self-assessment? Is there any point in making the case for a pastoral letter on abortion that, like the pastoral letters of the 1980s, presented its teaching in a way shaped by listening and learning?
My best guess is that a mostly silent majority of bishops—or at least a decisive minority—is open to such possibilities. Beset by crises in their own dioceses, reluctant to break ranks with their outspoken colleagues, apprehensive about being labeled as unfaithful guardians of doctrine, they nonetheless fear that the Church is presently embarked on an ill-advised, maybe even ruinous course. I hope they are searching for alternatives.