US President Joseph Biden embarked on the first overseas trip of his presidency last week. His first scheduled stops were in the UK and Belgium to gather with world leaders for the G7 and NATO summits, before heading to Switzerland to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last night, in an unattributed story, Catholic News Agency (CNA) reported that the Vatican had “nixed” Biden’s request to attend Mass in the Casa Santa Marta chapel this morning, ostensibly sending a signal to the US bishops that Pope Francis wants to avoid giving the impression that he opposes the proposed statement on “Eucharistic Coherence” that will be discussed at this week’s USCCB meeting. When I read the CNA report, it wasn’t the Church politics angle that caught my attention—it’s well-known that unlike his predecessors, Francis rarely distributes communion to anyone at the Masses he celebrates—it was CNA’s claim that Biden was headed to Rome at all. They reported (emphasis mine):

“President Joe Biden’s attendance at early morning Mass with Pope Francis has been nixed from an early plan of the June 15 meeting of both leaders, a reliable Vatican source told CNA.

President Biden, who is in Europe for several high level meetings, is taking off the morning of June 15 to meet Pope Francis as President of the United States for the first time. The President’s entourage had originally requested for Biden to attend Mass with the Pope early in the morning, but the proposal was nixed by the Vatican after considering the impact that President Biden receiving Holy Communion from the Pope would have on the discussions the USCCB is planning.”

If the story was accurate, that meant CNA had buried the lede—they had an exclusive scoop about a surprise meeting today between the president and the pope. The possibility was floated earlier this month; CNA’s Andrea Gagliarducci reported speculation on June 3 that there might be a meeting, but no such plans were ever announced publicly. I personally asked around in recent days to see if there was any buzz about a presidential drop-in visit to the Vatican, and the near-universal response I received was that it wasn’t happening.

I looked elsewhere on the internet for other reports, but the only outlets who mentioned this story relied on the CNA article as the exclusive source. It seemed unbelievable to me, but the story remained up for hours. While I had a strong hunch the story was false, there was a part of me that wondered whether I had underestimated the reliability of CNA as a news outlet. I was up late working on a project, and I decided to stay awake even later to see if news of a Biden visit would break during the Roman morning.

It was a waste of time, of course.

The original version of the story (with its unnamed author and “reliable source”) remained on the CNA website and was spread widely on the internet through the night and into the morning in the US, until the sun rose over the Rockies and the original story was “updated.” (I imagine the CNA Rome correspondents were mortified.)

Remarkably—even incredibly—the new version of the article maintains the original narrative, only shifting the claim to an “early plan” that was later changed. It even still refers to a “reliable” source (the same source as before?):

“President Joe Biden’s attendance at early morning Mass with Pope Francis was nixed from an early plan for the first meeting of both leaders, a reliable Vatican source told CNA.

President Biden is currently in Europe for several high level meetings, offering a potential opportunity to meet with Pope Francis. According to Vatican sources June 15, there is no meeting currently scheduled between the two men.

The President’s entourage had originally requested for Biden to attend Mass with the pope early in the morning, but the proposal was nixed by the Vatican after considering the impact that Biden receiving Holy Communion from the pope would have on the discussions the USCCB is planning to have during their meeting.”

This was just the latest in a series of attempts by Catholic media to pit the bishops against each other and to twist the narrative in order to promote a USCCB vote this week on a statement about reception of the Eucharist by public figures. A clear call from CDF prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria that charted a course for the US bishops to approach the issue synodally with the global Church and to seek consensus among themselves was spun by a number of Francis’s critics. For example, Ed Condon of the Pillar suggested “That letter, which called for ‘exhaustive and serene’ discussion among the bishops, did not, despite repeated media characterizations asserting the contrary, instruct, suggest, or even hint that the U.S. bishops ought to shelve the issue at their June meeting.”

Taken in context, it is difficult to see how an honest reading of the letter from Cardinal Ladaria to Archbishop Gomez suggests anything but slowing down the process. Ladaria recommends two stages of “serene dialogue” in the letter—followed by consultation with episcopal bodies around the world—before the bishops decide whether to move forward with an official statement on the matter. Yet some bishops stated that Ladaria’s letter was a sign to stay the course. For example, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila released a statement insisting that Ladaria’s intervention was a sign that their plan is “warranted and encouraged” by the Vatican. He went on to say that the bishops asking the conference to slow down were “creating an atmosphere of factionalism, rather than unity amongst the bishops.”

More recently, Dan and Rachel Amiri wrote about the spin that followed the publication of a letter signed by over sixty bishops asking Archbishop Gomez for a pause that would give bishops more time to meet and discuss the proposal in groups:

“Recently, over 60 bishops submitted a letter to Archbishop Gomez, urging him to postpone discussion of ‘Eucharistic worthiness’ from the USCCB’s June meeting to a later date. The framing from certain Catholic media—consonant with the public comments of some bishops, such as Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, who each issued public statements in response—was to present these bishops as not wanting to talk about the thorny issue of coherence. Aquila described the letter’s intent as seeking ‘a halt to discussion,’ while Cordileone described it as indicative of ‘rising public acrimony among bishops and the adoption of behind-closed-doors maneuvers’ intended to interfere with the USCCB’s process. Indeed, some commentators even went so far as to suggest that the signatories were actually in disagreement with Ladaria’s letter, under the reasoning that Ladaria wanted the bishops to discuss it and these 60 bishops supposedly do not.”

The Amiris go on to explain how the text of the letter from these concerned bishops shows that it was written in light of Ladaria’s recommendations and was not an attempt to put a stop to discussion of the issue. The bishops’ letter urged Gomez to allow the bishops to have an opportunity to discuss the issue in small groups and in person, rather than in the impersonal forum of a Zoom meeting with over 200 participants. Archbishop John Wester told CNS, “The letter is basically a direct response to Cardinal Ladaria’s intervention.”

Perhaps there has been no greater example of spin on this issue than the term “Eucharistic coherence” itself. The term was not part of the American Catholic lexicon until it was recently lifted from paragraph 436 of the Latin American bishops’ 2007 Aparecida document by some US commentators and bishops for the current debate. You certainly won’t find any reference to this phrase in the 2004 or 2008 USCCB debates on the subject. Because it comes from a documented drafted under the leadership of then-Cardinal Bergoglio, “Eucharistic coherence” is used to suggest that this plan to create a national policy for denying the Eucharist is in accordance with the vision of Pope Francis.*

As the 2021 version of the debate has intensified, the term has appeared with greater frequency, replacing the once-ubiquitous talking points about Canon 915 (“Those who have been… obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion”). The paragraph from Aparecida has been quoted in an official statement by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, and has been invoked by many priests, commentators, and pundits.

An opinion piece in the Pillar tries to make this argument:

“As the bishops of the United States debate the question of Eucharistic coherence, there is often an unspoken implication, sometimes even said explicitly, that Pope Francis would oppose an admonishment on the subject, or a prohibition of Holy Communion for Catholic politicians supporting expanded legal protection or federal funding for abortion.

If Aparecida really captures the vision of the pontiff, then its text would seem to rebut that notion.”

It’s astounding that after the US Bishops spent 8 years ignoring this document (and also the exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which drew heavily from it), they have suddenly discovered its 436th paragraph now that it’s politically convenient. The basic argument from The Pillar and others is that because Francis’s supporters (ourselves included) have long argued that the Aparecida document reflects the pope’s vision, they are hypocrites unless they support the USCCB’s proposal.

The article—setting up an imagined “gotcha” scenario—argues, “Of course, the bishops and pundits who oppose such a vision are likely to say that section of Aparecida doesn’t really reflect the vision of Pope Francis.” I don’t know of anyone who has said that. But I’m also unaware of Pope Francis ever suggesting that paragraph 436 of the document mandates the public denial of the Eucharist to certain Catholics.

The Aparecida document doesn’t actually propose a policy of denying communion. No one has been able to identify a Latin American national bishops’ conference that has implemented such a policy based on that paragraph. Aparecida certainly doesn’t mention or allude to canon 915, which is the basis of the US bishops’ proposals throughout the years.

In fact, paragraph 436 of Aparecida concludes, “This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals.” The words of the document stress the gravity of politicians who support evils like abortion and euthanasia, but place the burden of conscience on the politicians themselves. In other words, it is a suggestion that the politicians refrain, not that the bishops should deny.

One thing that Americans don’t seem to recognize is that applying canon 915 to systematically deny the Eucharist to those who publicly dissent from Church teaching is unprecedented in the global Church. Michael Sean Winters explains this colorfully in his pointed analysis of Cardinal Ladaria’s letter to Gomez:

“Ladaria also stated that the U.S. bishops’ conference consult with other national episcopal conferences so as ‘both to learn from one another and to preserve unity in the Universal Church.’ Translation: You are the only episcopal conference undertaking this insane effort to weaponize the Eucharist, and if you won’t listen to the saner voices in your own conference, try listening to bishops in other countries.”

This point was reiterated by Sandro Magister, a conservative Italian Vatican journalist (and by no means a supporter of Pope Francis). He was cited in Jason Horowitz’s report in the New York Times yesterday, explaining that this issue is “uniquely American” and that it is “basically unheard of in Europe.” He told Horowitz, “The pope himself would rather not have this vivid debate.”

Oddly enough, while the publicly debated question is the denial of the Eucharist to pro-choice politicians, that isn’t mentioned specifically in the proposal outlined by Archbishop Gomez in a May 22 response to the objecting bishops. The bishops in favor of the proposal and who seem to hold the power in the approval process—and the laity who support them—have framed this as a referendum on Biden’s views on abortion. In many ways, it really doesn’t matter what the document says. This is reminiscent of the “two synods” that we’ve seen throughout this papacy. When reactionaries control the narrative, the truth becomes obscured and passions direct the public debate. It’s sad to see that in the US, the bishops are now leading the reactionary charge.

This is an unnecessary fight. The bishops don’t disagree on the morality of abortion or on the Church’s core doctrine on worthiness to receive the Eucharist. The point of conflict is the result of a minority of the global episcopacy deciding to take up a policy position without precedent in the Church and trying to impose it on an already divided and polarized US Church. Pro-lifers are being pitted against pro-lifers and supporters of the pope are being portrayed by his longstanding critics and detractors as out of step with his vision. How is this going to help heal our wounded Church?

*NOTE 06/19/2021: Michael Sean Winters helpfully points out that the origin of the phrase “Eucharistic coherence” in this context was apparently first used by Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo at the 2005 Synod of Bishops, not Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. That said, it does seem that the US bishops who adopted the phrase did take it from the Aparecida document, so the paragraph remains unchanged besides the addition of this note.

Image: By Farragutful – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22621812

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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.

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