Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, OFM Cap., is a busy man. Just days away from his 77th birthday, one year past retirement age, he still serves as Archbishop of Boston, the fourth largest archdiocese in the United States. O’Malley has been a member of Pope Francis’s council of Cardinals since it was established in 2013, and he took part in the council’s virtual meeting on Thursday to discuss the importance of synodality, the current state of the pandemic around the world, and Vatican finances. He has also been President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since 2014 and a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 2017.
In his years as a religious, priest, and bishop he has served various communities on the margins, including immigrants and the poor, and he was part of the pro-life movement from the very beginning. As bishop and archbishop of Fall River, Palm Beach, and Boston, he was given responsibility over dioceses reeling from sexual abuse scandals and the episcopal malfeasance of his predecessors. I have had the pleasure of meeting him once, during an event sponsored by the USCCB while he was Chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Affairs. He was very kind and gracious during our brief conversation.
Cardinal O’Malley has recently been weighing in on the debate surrounding the USCCB’s planned document on the Eucharist. Several days ago, I mentioned his comments on his blog, in which he expressed that he was encouraged that the focus of the document had shifted from politics to “the question of preparedness and Eucharistic consistency.” This was a positive sign.
Today, he shared additional thoughts on the subject, but once again, it’s buried at the bottom of a very lengthy blog post, so I want to highlight it here. It is well worth reading and reflecting on:
In my mind, the two greatest evils in American history are slavery and abortion. I will always be ashamed that instead of strongly opposing slavery and racism, too often in our history, American Catholics tended to be assimilated into the dominant culture that justified slavery, maybe even as a necessary evil, but necessary. Religious communities and Catholics were slaveowners; bishops defended the institution of slavery. This was fueled in part by a Catholic inferiority complex that impelled us to be ever trying to prove how American we were and, hence, very pliable under societal pressure. There were Catholic abolitionists, but the Church in the United States failed miserably to be a prophetic voice by not condemning the cruel institution of slavery. Other religious groups like the Quakers were much more faithful to the Gospel values and defending the human rights of the enslaved. The Catholic Church’s historical complicity with slavery causes much pain and shame today, particularly among our Black Catholics.
The Catholic Church’s history with abortion in the United States is different. We were not co-opted by the secular culture; we were not assimilated into the pro-abortion mentality of political correctness. The Catholic Church in the United States — the hierarchy of the United States —has never retreated from the fight against abortion. And before other groups ever raised a finger, the Catholic bishops were loud in our opposition to the culture of death. I do not know of any other hierarchy in the world that has fought harder to stop abortion and to promote the Gospel of Life.
As a young priest, I was working with Nellie Gray, organizing the first March for Life in Washington, eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches she would serve me in her living room. Nellie Gray was a lawyer working in the Labor Department at the time of Roe vs. Wade. She immediately gave up her job and dedicated her life to making the world safer for unborn babies. The pundits were all saying that these groups of pro-life people will all die off, and the future will be ours — for the people of choice.
Well, 50 years later, the pro-life movement has not died off, and, in great part, it is because the Catholic Church is here.
In my lifetime, our Church has not done a great job in teaching people about preparedness for the Eucharist. I grew up in a world where many people were afraid to come to Communion. If you swallowed even a sip of water while brushing your teeth, you might be afraid to draw near the Communion rail for fear of committing a sacrilege. As a young priest, I spent hours in the confessional with people tortured by scruples. No Catholic ever wants to commit a sacrilege. That fear often made people hesitate to receive the sacrament.
At the same time, I saw many people were motivated to leave behind a life of sin and vice because of their hunger to receive the Eucharist. Mauriac speaks of how people’s hunger for the Eucharist brings about conversion in their lives. Some people have resisted temptation, overcome feelings of jealousy and revenge, abandoned infidelities and lies, all because of their desire to be able to receive the Body and Blood of Christ worthily.
After the Second Vatican Council, we had many liturgical changes that came quickly. Many of these changes were very helpful, but often there was little explanation or catechesis about why things were changing. When I was a young lad, to receive Communion, we fasted from midnight, even from water. Only the priests could touch the host. We received Communion kneeling down. We all went to confession almost every Saturday. Women covered their heads in Church, if not with a hat, with a piece of Kleenex or a glove. All of this changed practically overnight. There was never any anthropological consideration of how changing the symbols can change the meaning for people.
One of the things that changed was the connection between confession and Communion. Suddenly, the impression was often given that everyone was invited to come forward to receive, regardless of their preparedness or lack of it.
I would welcome a good catechesis about how we must prepare to receive the Eucharist worthily, but I fear that the discussion that is simply about denying Communion to politicians has already become the focus of the conversation, resulting in a lot of finger-pointing and finger waving. The serious examination that we need to make as Catholics is being subsumed into the political polarization of our country.
Our Catholics, whether conservative liberal or middle-of-the-road, have been through a lot. I always say that being a Catholic in Boston is a contact sport. The secularization of our culture, the loss of a commonly held Christian anthropology, and now the fallout of the sex abuse crisis have left Catholics shaken in their faith, angry at the bishops and mistrustful of leadership in the Church.
The controversy about the denying of Communion to politicians fuels anger on both sides. If we bishops get caught up in this fight, we can easily give the impression that we are divided in our opposition to abortion, and I do not believe that.
We need to show a united stance on behalf of the Gospel of life and all of its ramifications. If we are divided, we will be weakening the Church, and our ability to promote the Gospel of Life will be compromised. Denial of Communion to politicians will be interpreted by most Americans and Catholics as partisan politics that has nothing to do with reverence or piety.
I understand how Catholics can be angry and saddened when our elected officials try to dismiss the Gospel of Life as some optional sectarian issue rather than the sacred duty to defend human rights. It has nothing to do about imposing our Catholic faith on anyone. It is a human rights issue.
We need to recommit ourselves to working tirelessly to overcome abortion by changing hearts, by serving women in difficult pregnancies and by changing the conditions of injustice that push people to the tragic choice of destroying their own children.
So often, when I am speaking to our priests and deacons about their great responsibility to teach the truths of the Catholic faith, I try to make the point that people will give us a hearing if they see that we are authentic in living our life of discipleship and if they are convinced that we care about them.
The Holy Father calls on us to dialogue with those who do not agree with our convictions. We must try to engage in a way that will bring more light and less heat to the conversation. Otherwise, the sad divisions that plague our country and our Church will only grow deeper and more intractable.
Today, we are living a very challenging time for the pro-life cause, as became evident at our Spring General Assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Though each bishop may have a different opinion on the best way to promote the defense of life in the current context, there is no doubt in my mind that they are all pro-life and want to do what is in their power to protect innocent human life and communicate the Church’s social teaching to our Catholic people.
It’s hard to imagine anyone in the United States who does not know of the Catholic Church’s unfailing opposition to abortion. This will never change.
The present debate about Communion for Catholic politicians supporting abortion exhibits a deep divide among the bishops on this topic, but not on abortion.
Unfortunately, when these kinds of divisions become too evident, it hinders our ability to be able to teach the Gospel and draw our communities closer to Christ and one another.
The Eucharist is the center of our life as a Church, and I hope that, as the drafting of the document progresses, we will find a way to reconcile the different perspectives on how to take a pastoral approach with our Catholic politicians without undermining the centrality and importance of the Eucharist.
The Holy Father is urging us to find paths to heal divisions and announce the good news boldly and joyfully.
Image: Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley OFM Cap, Archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts, © George Martell – Pilot New Media, License: Creative Commons, Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) (source: https://flic.kr/p/dY7nL9)
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.