On Nov. 17, the assembled Catholic bishops of the United States overwhelmingly approved “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” by a vote of 222 to 8.
Pope Francis’ apostolic nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre, had told the bishops that in their decision making “the path forward necessarily involves unity.” To the extent possible on this earth, that is what they demonstrated.
Secular news media responded by demonstrating their single-minded focus on national politics. The Washington Post said the bishops had spoken “without singling out politicians who back abortion rights.” The Associated Press said the bishops “avoid direct rebuff to Biden,” while Fox News’ headline said “Biden not named” in the document — as though it could have revised the Fifth Commandment to read “Biden shalt not kill.”
So what does it really say in its 30 pages?
In Part I, “The Gift,” it says a great deal about the Eucharist’s role in our salvation. This is to be expected, as the bishops had planned to focus on the Eucharist long before the presidential election — prompted in part by surveys suggesting that many Catholics do not understand that role.
“The Sacrament of the Eucharist is called Holy Communion,” said the bishops, “precisely because, by placing us in intimate communion with the sacrifice of Christ, we are placed in intimate communion with him and, through him, with each other.”
Part II, “Our Response,” explains what this means for society: “The personal and moral transformation that is sustained by the Eucharist reaches out to every sphere of human life. … Our relationship with Christ is not restricted to the private sphere; it is not for ourselves alone.”
Moreover, “Lay people who exercise some form of public authority 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.”
The bishops quote Pope Francis on a “throwaway culture” that ignores people “when they are poor and disabled, ‘not yet useful’ — like the unborn, or ‘no longer needed’ — like the elderly.” They cite the Second Vatican Council’s condemnation of grave evils that “poison human society,” including abortion and euthanasia (“Gaudium et Spes,” 27).
With St. John Paul II, they add that while only God can ultimately judge someone’s invisible “state of grace,” the church can and must address how “visible communion” is undermined by “outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm.”
And they reaffirm their own statement of 2006 that a Catholic who “in his or her personal or professional life” knowingly and obstinately repudiates the church’s “definitive teaching on moral issues” should refrain from receiving holy Communion — and the diocesan bishop has a “special responsibility” to address this grave situation.
That person’s receiving Communion “is also likely to cause scandal for others, weakening their resolve to be faithful to the demands of the Gospel.”
Despite laudable efforts on some other issues, President Biden opposes longstanding policies that protect Catholic and other health care providers from being forced to provide abortions, and that protect pro-life Americans from being forced to subsidize abortions. In this, he is far from alone — the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has voted to end those policies.
This reaches beyond merely “weakening” others’ resolve to respect human life, as it could make it illegal to act on that resolve. If the bishops had not pointed out the contradiction between such actions and communion with the Lord of Life, that would have been a scandal.
Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.