The major news from the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Wednesday was what did not happen. After months of rancor, the leaders of the church decided to say nothing about the right of the second Catholic president of the United States to receive Communion.
This was something of a victory for more moderate and progressive bishops who opposed weaponizing the sacrament against President Biden because of his support for abortion rights. They share Pope Francis’s view that Communion “is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.”
Yet the outcome at the meeting in Baltimore was more of a truce than a resolution as American Catholicism continues to struggle over fundamental questions related to the church’s relationship with modernity, declining religious affiliation and attitudes toward the secular world.
The relatively desultory debate was anticlimactic and reflected the exhaustion of a church riven by politics. Many more conservative bishops had once hoped that the document on the Eucharist — reiterating church teaching on the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist — would include an explicit rebuke to Biden and other pro-choice Democratic politicians over abortion.
The split about the relative priority of the abortion issue vs. church teachings on economic and social justice mirrors a larger argument about Pope Francis himself and his effort to highlight the church’s mission toward the poor and its obligation to join the fight to protect a dangerously warming planet.
Votes during the meeting for various positions of leadership in the conference suggested the bishops are closely divided between supporters and critics of the pope — a sundering over Vatican authority that is itself unusual in American Catholic history.
The Vatican representative to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, made clear in an address to the bishops on Tuesday that Francis does not welcome how the church is recapitulating the rancor of American politics.
“A divided Church will never be able to lead others to the deeper unity desired by Christ,” Pierre said. “The Church needs … attentive listening now more than ever if she is to overcome the polarization afflicting this country.”
The loud applause that greeted the 222-to-8 vote Wednesday on the document was, as much as anything, an expression of relief at a conflict temporarily resolved with the mild language of compromise on the role of Catholic politicians.
“Laypeople who exercise some form of public authority,” the document said, “have a special responsibility to form their consciences in accord with the Church’s faith and the moral law, and to serve the human family by upholding human life and dignity.”
Yet some of the staunchest antiabortion bishops did not back down from their earlier comments during a brief debate this week. And the president of the Bishop’s Conference, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, had opened a new front in the internal battle earlier this month.
Criticizing “new social justice movements” as “pseudo religions” that “fill the space that Christian belief and practice once occupied,” Gomez took issue with “what we might call the ‘woke’ story.” He denounced “today’s critical theories and ideologies” as “profoundly atheistic,” saying they “deny the soul, the spiritual, transcendent dimension of human nature.”
Gomez’s comments, made during an online address to a Catholic meeting in Spain, brought a flood of denunciations from progressive Catholics, including groups such as Pax Christi USA and the National Black Sisters’ Conference. As of Wednesday, a petition organized by Faith in Public Life and Faithful America calling on Gomez to apologize and describing his speech as “particularly painful and offensive to Black Catholic advocates” had drawn more than 13,000 signatures.
Gomez placed his critique in the context of “secularization and de-Christianization” and, in an echo of the far right, criticized an “elite leadership class … that has little interest in religion and no real attachments to the nations they live in or to local traditions and cultures.”
“In this elite worldview,” he added, “there is no need for old-fashioned belief systems and religions.”
While Pope Francis has also criticized the world’s elites, he has taken to task those who “in this modern age … can see nothing but prevarication and ruin.”
“We feel that we must disagree with those prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand,” Francis declared in his 2013 apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.” He also rebuked “querulous and disillusioned pessimists” whom he labeled “sourpusses.”
If the bishops have, for now, put the fight with Biden on the back burner, the struggle surrounding Francis’s hopeful vision still rages — and it’s about far more than U.S. politics.