Readers of Where Peter Is are probably aware by now of the controversies surrounding the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which is currently considering putting into place a national policy on the reception of communion by political figures whose ideological commitments advocate intrinsic evils. The obvious target of this policy is President Joe Biden, a Catholic Democrat who holds views on abortion that do not align with Church teaching. Many readers will also be aware that Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), sent a letter to the President of the USCCB, Archbishop José Gomez. In this letter, dated May 7, Cardinal Ladaria, speaking on behalf of the CDF, advised the US bishops of the Congregation’s expectations on how such a policy should be put together. In his letter, Ladaria stresses the importance of unity within the episcopal conference throughout the discussion and approval of such a policy. In other words, he expects and desires that the USCCB approach the issue in a synodal—and not political—way.
“It would be misleading,” Ladaria adds, “if such a statement were to give the impression that abortion and euthanasia alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability on the part of Catholics.” Moreover, “If [the USCCB] …decided to formulate a national policy on worthiness for communion, such a statement would need to express a true consensus of the bishops on the matter, while observing the prerequisite that any provisions of the Conference in this area would respect the rights of individual Ordinaries in their dioceses and the prerogatives of the Holy See.” The latter guideline is significant given that Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Archbishop of Washington, has said that he does not intend to deny Biden communion, as has the outgoing Bishop of Wilmington, W. Francis Malooly. (Wilmington’s newly-appointed bishop, William E. Koenig, has said that he is “open to having a conversation” on the matter with Biden.)
Fundamentally, Ladaria’s warnings to the USCCB express similar concerns as those expressed by Pope Francis during the Amazon Synod and the way it handled the viri probati question. A course of action without any real precedent was treated the way secular legislators would have treated a policy change, being discussed and debated in a parliamentary way. Francis later explained, “We must understand that the Synod is more than a Parliament; and in this specific case [the synod] could not escape this dynamic.” All that the people at the Amazon Synod seemed to care about, when it came to the viri probati, was whether they had the votes; similarly, many have noted that the USCCB’s current course does not seem geared towards producing consensus among the bishops, but rather towards allowing the “conservative” majority of the American episcopate to muscle through an unprecedented and controversial teaching document over the objections of their more “liberal” colleagues, including Biden’s own archbishop. Once again we see a process threatening to violate the vision for a synodal Church that animates the Francis pontificate, just as many fear the “synodal way” in Germany threatens to abuse the promises of that vision.
It’s more than possible that if Gregory or Malooly or Koenig had a series of serious conversations with President Biden about the areas where Church doctrine does not align with Biden’s political commitments, the result would be a decision that Biden shouldn’t present himself for communion. (By the same token, the same decision might also have been made with former Attorney General Bill Barr had anybody in the hierarchy intervened in his case.)
Ladaria’s letter to Gomez recommends a two-step process of dialogue, first within the conference of bishops, then between the bishops and Catholic public figures who support legal abortion such as President Biden. The purpose of the second step would be to ascertain these figures’ true views on the subject and proceed accordingly. The issue, for Ladaria and likely also for Pope Francis, is that instead of inaugurating such a process, the ideological contingent with the most power in the USCCB wanted to commit the whole national Church to a completely novel policy intended to “own” one person (or possibly two if we assume they want to “own” Cardinal Gregory as well).
The Ladaria intervention isn’t necessarily intended to forestall the development of a national policy on the reception of communion. What it proposes is to prod the USCCB to produce this policy the way episcopal conferences are actually supposed to produce new magisterium—by reaching near-unanimity on issues of concern to all the faithful rather than by advertising the bishops’ ideological loyalties with political maneuvering.
There are two other areas emphasized by Ladaria in this letter that further emphasize the ideas of unity and synodality. The first is his recommendation that the question of politicians and communion “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.” In other words, worthiness to receive communion is an issue of importance to all Catholics, not just political figures. The second area is his suggestion that the US bishops “dialogue with other episcopal conferences as this policy is formulated.” This is important because, as Michael Sean Winters recently noted, other episcopal conferences around the world have not formulated similar national guidelines on Eucharistic coherence. A truly synodal Church is united (it “walks together”), and this is an opportunity for bishops to learn from each other on how to address these questions.
A defined series of rubrics on Eucharistic coherence in a pluralistic society would be an important contribution to the Church if it were gone about the right way, which is to say synodally rather than politically. The CDF is, as is often the case in the Francis era, also concerned that the USCCB avoid abortion-onlyism in its assessment of which Catholic doctrines Catholic public figures ought to be bound to uphold.
The media reaction to this series of events and interventions has involved a lot of the type of distortion that Where Peter Is traditionally spends a lot of time responding to. Many have tried to spin and relativize the Ladaria intervention, or seem to have succumbed to moral relativism about every issue other than abortion. I could go on about the self-mythologizing fanfiction version of Catholicism where Gerhard Müller is still CDF Prefect and there apparently hasn’t been a Pope since 2013. All of this, of course, decreases the likelihood that the USCCB will receive Ladaria’s intervention in the spirit in which it was intended. However, we shouldn’t lose hope at this stage that better and more faithful and obedient angels may yet prevail. The USCCB hasn’t reached their “Germany moment” quite yet because the extent to which the Ladaria intervention will produce a course correction on the part of Gomez and others remains to be seen. In the meantime, we can and should pray that all parties will seek unity and proceed with wisdom and discernment.
Image: Archbishop Jose Gomez. Attribution: Thank You (21 Millions+) views, Flickr. License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.