Catholics and Protestants used to literally fight each other in the streets of U.S. cities like Philadelphia. Back in the 19th century, it was the ethnic and religious antagonism that fueled these brawls. Now, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is fighting a different sort of battle, against a different sort of “enemy.” The bishops are lining up to deliver below-the-belt hits to a fellow Catholic, President Joe Biden. And instead of fists, they are using a Communion wafer, the “body of Christ,” to wage political division.
The decision at the USCCB’s June meeting to draft a document to examine the "meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the church" is not simply a theological exercise but a political flex. It is designed to strengthen the U.S. bishops’ conservative ranks and to express their displeasure over Biden’s pro-abortion rights political stance. It also has implications for the coming 2022 election cycle, despite protestations to the contrary.
The decision at the USCCB’s June meeting to draft a document to examine the "meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the church" is not simply a theological exercise but a political flex.
But as with so much polarizing rhetoric, this fight threatens to keep moderate and liberal Catholics from coming back to Mass after lifting Covid-19 restrictions, and it could further enflame arift between liberal and conservative Catholics in America. While other issues such as racism, immigration and the pandemic have received some attention from the USCCB, the Communion wars seem to be the hill the group wants its relevance to die on.
This is not the first time, however, that the Catholic bishops have played hardball with Communion. Culture warrior and retired Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia made headlines back in 2004 as archbishop in Colorado by saying that voting for a presidential candidate like John Kerry (who supported abortion rights) would be a sin. In order to receive Communion, Kerry supporters would need to confess, Chaput said. And in a recent article, Chaput stated that allowing Biden to take Communion would bring “scandal” on the church and faithful Catholics.
The real scandal, of course, is the politicization of the USCCB and its deliberate flouting of the statement sent to the board from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which called on the bishops to meet with Catholic politicians in good faith and try to understand the nature of their pro-abortion rights positions and their comprehension of Catholic teaching. Ladaria's statement was also reflective of the pope’s thinking; he recently stated, “The Eucharist is not the reward of saints, no, it is the bread of sinners.”
In other words, according to Pope Francis himself, the Eucharist is not for the perfect, nor the doctrinally pure, but for those who have “fragilities.” Contrary to this, the majority of the USCCB would like to use the Eucharist as a weapon — something to reward those who agree with their political stances. By writing this statement, and setting up a November meeting on the topic, the bishops are on a collision course with American Catholics, the U.S. president and with the Vatican.
In other words, according to Pope Francis himself, the Eucharist is not for the perfect, nor the doctrinally pure, but for those who have "fragilities."
The U.S. bishops know very well that they cannot promulgate a ruling about the Eucharist, and who gets it or doesn’t, without Vatican approval. What they can do is dominate the media narrative ahead of the 2022 election cycle and tip conservative Catholics more firmly into the Republican camp. Given the political leanings of some Catholic priests in the 2020 election cycle who condemned Biden, this isn’t shocking.
Politicians who now find themselves targets of the USCCB surely won’t be surprised. Nearly 60 Catholic House Democrats sent a statement to the bishops last week outlining their own concerns. The idea of members being denied the Eucharist while campaigning would surely overwhelm political coverage. The bishops are putting their fingers on the scale and hiding behind the church to do so.
The bishops don’t represent all Catholics' opinions about the Eucharist. The Association of U.S. Catholic Priests objected in its own statement “to any use of the Eucharist as a political weapon whether manifest or camouflaged.” The association is the largest organization of American Catholic priests but tends to trend older and more liberal.
It is disingenuous for the bishops to say this attempt to change the rules regarding the Eucharist is nonpolitical. Catholics, cradle and convert alike, know the rules are often broken. All Catholics have seen someone who wasn’t Catholic come up to the Communion rail, receive the Eucharist and walk off, unscathed. Plenty of divorced Catholics continue to take Communion as well, as do more secret sinners — with transgressions both large and small. This is a new front in the culture war, plain and simple.
The irony in all of this is that this week begins “Religious Freedom Week” for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. While these religious leaders tout how much they love America and freedom, they are actively trying to turn the American church into a political force in the same vein as evangelicals. By tying the Eucharist to political issues, they risk alienating their flocks, their priests and the politicians they claim they want to adhere to church teachings.
The only winners here are Republicans — who are majority Protestants.