In Cardinal Luis Ladaria’s May 7th letter to USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the CDF Prefect warned that without a rigorous and “serene” process, the conversation about “worthiness to receive Holy Communion” would become a “source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger Church in the United States.” The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was quite prescient. In their haste to reach a resolution on the matter of Eucharistic coherence during the early part of the Biden Administration, some American bishops have taken their disputes to mass and social media. Counter-statements have been published along with counter-counter statements. All this back-and-forth conflicts with the spirit of Cardinal Ladaria’s letter.
Beyond the comprehensive list of preliminary steps that Cardinal Ladaria suggests the US bishops should follow if they choose to go forward with a statement, the underlying subtext of the Prefect’s letter is something like, “slow down and make sure you all want to do this, because it could cause more harm than good.” The last several weeks of debate have yielded much bad theology, confusing pastoral proposals, complaints of hypocrisy, and blatant political partisanship. These have been the fruits of the controversy, happening—ironically—at a time when pastors across the country are absolutely desperate to get Catholics back in the pews at Sunday Mass. Many of the laity are receiving a very conflicted and self-defeating message.
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.
Now that the full text is publicly available, it is clear that not only were these bishops expressly conscious of Ladaria’s intervention, citing it throughout their letter, but they also called for continued small-group discussion prior to the USCCB’s Administrative Committee meeting in September. Rather than proposing a “halt” to discussion, the bishops’ letter says that Ladaria’s “sound theological and pastoral advice opens a new path for moving forward.” Instead of pressing “the U.S. bishops’ conference to suspend its conversation” on the matter (as The Pillar put it), the letter requested a postponement of “Conference wide discussion and committee work … until the full body of bishops is able to meet in person.” In the meantime, they suggested that groups of bishops could meet to discuss Ladaria’s letter “regionally or by province” before September’s meetings.
Surely allowing more private dialogue—away from the impersonal setting of a video conference—could produce more introspective and fruitful conversation on Eucharistic coherence. Anyone who has worked through the pandemic’s necessary shift to Zoom conferences is aware of the limitations of video calls—described by the bishops as “the fractured and isolated setting of a distance meeting.” Coincidentally, Canadian theologian Brett Salkeld also discussed this phenomenon in the latest episode of The Critical Catholic, suggesting that some particularly contentious issues are best discussed with those we care about when we are together in person. Even Pope Francis has recently noted the limitations of virtual forms of communication. In Fratelli Tutti, he asserted that digital connectivity does not demand “stable interaction or the building of a consensus that matures over time,” and is “not enough to build bridges” (43).
Understandably, then, these bishops are worried that rushing into drafting a statement will make it practically impossible to “forge substantive unity” and to meet “the high standard of consensus” requested by Cardinal Ladaria. Quite reasonably, they agree with the prefect that consensus is necessary and vital for addressing the “serious nature of these issues.” In comments to Catholic News Service, one of the signatories of the letter to Gomez, Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, noted this, describing their letter as “basically a direct response to Cardinal Ladaria’s intervention,” while observing that the ability to engage in productive dialogue is “very, very constrained on Zoom.”
Now we are left with jockeying between our bishops. This only feeds into the existing polarization in American Catholicism, which is leading to further disunity. While Archbishops Aquila and Cordileone ostensibly lament this division, it’s difficult to see how their ongoing public commentary ahead of the USCCB meeting doesn’t contribute to it. The way things are going—if Conference leadership is successful in pushing through a statement on Eucharistic worthiness—any attempts to enforce a national policy would likely backfire among an American Catholic laity that is increasingly disenchanted with the institutional Church.
Eucharistic worthiness is an important topic and has been addressed by the Church in several key documents over the last twenty years. With an increasingly global Church and ubiquitous media coverage, Catholic politicians face a reality where nearly every aspect of their lives constitutes a public witness. Even so, Cardinal Ladaria advised Archbishop Gomez not to limit the scope of a future document to politicians, saying, “any statement of the Conference regarding Catholic political leaders would best be framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful, rather than only one category of Catholics.” The potential for scandal is real and must be addressed adequately but also fairly across the entire country and across the political spectrum and, preferably—as Ladaria’s letter intimates—synodally, in consultation with the global Church. This is not something the Conference leadership should ram through as soon as they have the votes. It will require a serious process of listening, discerning, and consensus-making. It may even necessitate compromise in the near-term in the interest of Church unity and collegiality.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis expressed something that seems quite relevant to this situation. He wrote, “Sometimes I wonder if there are people in today’s world who are really concerned about generating processes of people-building, as opposed to obtaining immediate results which yield easy, quick short-term political gains, but do not enhance human fullness.” If teaching about Eucharistic worthiness is truly about faith and human fullness, the bishops will take their time to get it right.
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