The decision of right-wing Catholic bishops to begin drafting a statement that many of them said was aimed at President Biden and his reception of communion was not just a rebuke to him and to other Catholic Democrats. It was also an attack on Pope Francis, who had made clear that he did not want them to go down this divisive road. And it reinforced the suspicions of the church among progressive-leaning young people already alienated from Christian institutions that champion extreme forms of conservative politics.
A group of angry men (they are all men) seemed to want nothing to do with their brothers and sisters who believe that social justice and a radical concern for “the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged,” as Francis put it in 2018, should be at the heart of Catholic teaching.
No, they would relegate all this to an inferior status in comparison with opposition to abortion. Which is a shame because, in its day-to-day life, the church does a great deal to fight poverty, injustice and exclusion.
It’s the anti-Francis majority of American bishops, not liberals or Francis defenders, who would put politics ahead of faith, ideology ahead of theology, and partisanship ahead of fellowship. The 75 percent of bishops who voted on June 17 to prepare the statement are importing the worst aspects of American politics into the life of the church.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) seemed to have second thoughts about how all this was coming across, so it issued a statement last week, four days after the vote, insisting that “there will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians” and that the document would not be “targeted at any one individual or class of persons.”
But much harm had already been done, as pro-Francis bishops pointed out during the debate. “The Eucharist itself will be a tool in vicious partisan turmoil,” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego warned. “It will be impossible to prevent its weaponization, even if everyone wants to do so.”
Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, added: “The choice before us at this moment is either we pursue a path of strengthening unity or settle for a document that will not bring unity but will very well further damage it.”
That’s especially true in light of a Pew Research Center survey this spring finding that given Biden’s views on abortion, 67 percent of U.S. Catholics still said that he should be allowed to receive communion; only 29 percent said he should not. Even among Catholics who are Republican or lean that way, only a bare majority (55 percent) said Biden should not be allowed to receive communion. Fully 44 percent of them thought Biden should be permitted. Thus bishops who would block Biden from the Eucharist found themselves allied with the most conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Whatever the bishops decide in the coming months, Biden is unlikely to be denied communion, as the USCCB’s subsequent statement effectively conceded — at least when he’s close to home. The Vatican may step in, and the leaders of the dioceses where Biden typically attends Mass, including Gregory, have, to their credit, allowed the faithfully churchgoing president to receive.
That this is even an issue shows how the viruses of the political right have infected the U.S. church leadership. It stands almost alone in the Catholic world in its singular focus on abortion, as Jason Horowitz reported in the New York Times. He noted that in “much of Europe and Latin America, it is essentially unthinkable for bishops to deny communion to politicians who publicly support abortion rights.”
Having pulled back ever so slightly, the bishops should now drop this ill-conceived project altogether. It will only continue to undercut their capacity — already strained by scandal — to preach, teach and persuade. They might take a moment to ponder the call to dialogue from Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and brilliant writer whom Pope Francis lifted up in his 2015 speech to Congress.
“If I insist on giving you my truth, and never stop to receive your truth in return,” Merton wrote, “there can be no truth between us.”
It’s a useful warning to a church that aspires to scripture’s call to “speak the truth in love,” and to expand rather than contract the reach of religious faith and the Gospel.