Like many Catholics who live in the Washington, DC area, I have attended the annual March for Life many times over the years. For those who haven’t been, it’s a massive annual pro-life rally held every year on January 22, the anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision. Groups come by bus from all over the country to take part in the March and the events surrounding it.
Most years I’ve attended, it’s been with a group from my church, and typically we’d have a Mass beforehand at our parish, take a chartered bus down to the National Mall, and join the March well after the scheduled time and blocks away from the stage where they conduct the “Rally for Life” that precedes it. Local pro-lifers have long known that attending the rally isn’t the best use of one’s time, and to leave it for the tourists. Until fairly recent changes in the programming, it was a tedious affair. Most of the rally was taken up by the dozens of senators and representatives who lined up on a platform, taking turns at the microphone one after the other, giving shoutouts to the people from their districts and repeating standard pro-life slogans, each of them going well past their allotted time slot and delaying the start of the March even more. As this dragged on, the marchers would wait in the January cold for the crowd to begin moving.
The only year I actually got close to the stage was 2011. I had travelled downtown by myself, and I decided to work my way through the crowd to until I was about 30 feet from the podium on the stage. Following the litany of repetitive speeches, the final speaker, Brooklyn Rabbi Yehuda Levin, was introduced. His impassioned speech against abortion called out a number of political leaders on the right for hypocrisy, called out leaders on the left for supporting legalized murder, compared abortion to the work of assisted suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and encouraged the marchers to chant “Defund Planned Parenthood.” This is all standard rhetoric in certain pro-life activist circles.
What has stuck with me since that day was when, in the middle of his speech, Levin called out the leader of another prominent pro-life group by name. He explained how he and some fellow rabbis had recently been escorted by security from this group’s event in a hotel. He exclaimed, “Never did the liberals or the abortionists do this to me! We are owed an apology.”
I wasn’t there when Rabbi Levin was asked to leave the building, and it’s entirely possible he was escorted out for good reason. But it was surreal to see one pro-life leader criticizing another in this way on a day when hundreds of thousands of people join together to stand up for the lives of the unborn. How does melodrama and public conflict like this help anything?
As dramatic as the moment was, it shouldn’t have been totally unexpected. For a movement that is theoretically united around the same cause—protecting and upholding the human dignity of the unborn—you’ll rarely find a group that’s more discordant and less unified than the pro-life movement. My mother once told me that she believed the source of division in the pro-life movement is the devil, because he wants it to fail.
Within the greater pro-life scene, you’ll find a wide range of personalities and approaches: from the serious and intellectual, to the uninhibited and fanatical, to the diplomatic and judicious, to the overtly pious, to the understated and conflict-averse, to the combative and political—there’s a pro-life activist (or two) to infuriate everyone. And that’s just personalities—things get even more complicated when you consider the disparate ideological commitments and areas of focus within the movement.
One of the main sources of this conflict is mistrust. More radical pro-lifers think their better-behaved counterparts lack commitment. Those who prefer a more measured approach think the flamboyant activists are hurting the cause. Some prefer to focus on the politics of abortion, others prefer to support pregnant mothers. Those who focus specifically on abortion accuse seamless garment pro-lifers of watering down the message. And while some pro-lifers want to attack or stigmatize those who promote abortion, others want to seek common ground and dialogue with them, working towards reconciliation.
That’s what we saw last week at the annual June meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Throughout the virtual gathering we witnessed a public display of the mistrust and disdain you’ll find in any large gathering of people committed to protecting the right to life of the unborn. (That’s correct. Despite what some may claim, every single active bishop in the US publicly affirms Catholic teaching on the sanctity of unborn life.)
In a vote conducted Thursday afternoon, the American episcopacy decided to move forward with drafting a document on the Eucharist that began as a recommendation by the Conference’s “working group” on the Biden administration earlier this year. Announced at the closing of their November 2020 general assembly meeting, this committee was formed to address potential areas of disagreement between the Biden administration and Catholic teaching.
Dubbed by the media (as well as many outspoken bishops) as an attempt to deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians like Joe Biden, the proposed “formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church” (as a USCCB meeting agenda described it) was approved by the US bishops with 168 yes votes, 55 no votes, and 6 abstentions. But what did they actually pass? Was it worth all the tension, conflict, and media attention?
Those bishops favoring enacting a policy of denying the Eucharist to politicians who support legal abortion base their argument in their interpretation of Church law. They claim that these political figures fall within the category of “others” who are to be denied communion under Canon 915 in the Code of Canon Law: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion” (emphasis added).
This interpretation has been the mainstream interpretation of the canon by US Catholic conservatives for years, with the issue rising to prominence in 2004 when pro-choice Catholic John Kerry ran as the Democratic party’s nominee for president. The question of denying communion to politicians who support legal abortion also rose to the surface in 2008, when Biden was chosen by Barack Obama as his running mate.
It’s not necessary to revisit the entire history of the controversy in this piece, but there’s a long backstory that hinges on a 2004 letter sent by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and then-Bishop Wilton Gregory, in which Ratzinger endorsed this interpretation of Canon 915. At the time, McCarrick only shared part of the letter with the body of bishops—omitting the comment about the controversial passage—and the bishops ultimately voted to leave the denial of communion up to each individual bishop. When the full letter was leaked, many Catholics were furious.
Earlier this year, USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez apparently asked Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), for permission to refer to the 2004 letter in the proposed document. Calling it a “personal communication,” Ladaria’s response to the request was carefully worded, but clearly negative:
“Regarding Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2004 letter to Cardinal McCarrick, this Congregation respects Cardinal Ratzinger’s stipulation that “these principles were not intended for publication.” The letter was in the form of a private communication addressed to the bishops. Insofar, therefore, as these principles are not published by the Conference, they may be of assistance in the preparation of the draft of your document.”
Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter is important to supporters of this policy, because despite being a private letter never intended for publication, it’s the closest thing to an official Vatican document endorsing their interpretation of the canon. Even though the practice of denying communion to pro-choice politicians has long been the mainstream, boilerplate understanding of Church law by many Catholics in the US (I myself was one of them), the more I dig into the reality of the Church’s discipline and practice, the more it becomes clear that this is a very novel interpretation of the law in the wider Church. It certainly was never observed (even personally) by Popes John Paul and Benedict, and Pope Francis has been able to avoid doing so publicly because he doesn’t distribute communion at public Masses.
Cardinal Ladaria also advised caution in proceeding with the document if it was to become a source of division, “This Congregation notes that such a policy, given its possibly contentious nature, could have the opposite effect and become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger Church in the United States.” The vast majority of US bishops did not follow his advice, pushing forward a proposal that was challenged by a vocal minority. And this was absolutely foreseeable.
Rather than uniting together on an area of agreement—working to protect the unborn—the bishops who want to deny communion to pro-choice politicians chose to fixate on an area of division. Not only that, they took a stand on a policy opposed by Biden’s own bishop, and which likely will never be enforced. In that way, this was a symbolic battle, and the only practical effect was to increase polarization and confusion.
There is also some confusion on what the proposed document will say. During the public debate among the bishops, some of the more mainstream conservatives surprised the moderates by contending that the document wouldn’t contain a set of guidelines about politicians receiving communion. Yet other bishops who supported the drafting of the document clearly believed it did. Michael Sean Winters summed up this odd juxtaposition in a column last week:
“The really instructive comments, however, came not from the bishops who rose to oppose the document, but from those who spoke in its favor. No matter how hard Gomez and Rhoades tried to convince everyone that this was not about politics, one bishop after another got up and insisted this was all about President Joe Biden.”
That said, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, one of more than 60 bishops who signed a letter to Archbishop Gomez asking for more discernment and dialogue prior to a vote, seemed encouraged by a change in direction. He wrote on his blog:
“I think, early on, there were some who envisioned the document as dealing with public figures and the reception of the Eucharist. However, in light of the instructions from the Holy See, the Committee on Doctrine has adjusted it to avoid focusing on categories of individuals but trying to develop a theological document around the Eucharist and the question of preparedness and Eucharistic consistency.”
This is key: preparedness to receive. A document on preparing to receive: examination of conscience, act of contrition, sacramental absolution, sacramental grace—this could be a great blessing for the Church and a catechetical tool that could benefit all Catholics.
Despite what some may think, I have no interest in defending President Biden’s decision to receive communion while supporting policies that increase access to abortion and fund abortion procedures (not to mention his lack of response to the recent actions by the justice department to reinstate the federal death penalty). The real question, however, is not whether Biden should receive communion, but whether he should be allowed to decide to receive communion. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis said that when those who approach the altar of the Lord, yet “turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily” (AL 186). By turning a blind eye to the suffering of unborn children, political leaders who support such policies do divide the Body of Christ.
The real question at stake is whether the decision should be left to individual Catholics, or if Church authorities should make the decision for them. Since the second Vatican Council, the approach of the Church, even before Francis became pope, has been to propose, rather than impose.
When someone is weak, a sinner, the approach of the Church is to accompany, to encourage, and to guide. While it might seem odd to describe the leader of the free world as weak, it seems that President Biden’s political evolution on the issue of abortion has been a manifestation of weakness. When he began his career in the Senate, he was opposed to Roe v Wade, but as the years have worn on, his position has shifted as his party has become increasingly hostile to the pro-life position. My prayer is for the restoration of his conscience and confidence, and for a rediscovery of these principles he’s decided to ignore.
As Pope Francis explained, “Although she constantly holds up the call to perfection and asks for a fuller response to God, ‘the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way or who are in the midst of a storm’” (AL 291).
After the chaos of last week, I hope the bishops and the Church are somehow able to find common cause. I find Cardinal O’Malley’s optimism encouraging. But there’s a chance that this November, when they plan to vote on the finished document, could be even more contentious.
You have probably heard some variation of the old Hillaire Belloc quote on the Church’s seeming inability to destroy itself:
“The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
Perhaps something similar could be said for the pro-life cause, except given the level of vitriol, infighting, and division within the movement, it’s a miracle that it’s lasted more than 15 minutes.
By Marchforlife2009alldotorg.JPG: Eric Martin and Rick Johnsonderivative work: Ferrylodge (talk) – Marchforlife2009alldotorg.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10227771
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.