A parliamentary vote to approve the agenda at semi-annual meetings of the U.S. bishops’ conference is usually a perfunctory, pro-forma affair of the type that might be missed by anyone who was still getting settled in to observe as the meeting began.
But at the June 16 opening session of the U.S. bishops’ conference spring virtual assembly, the bishops’ debate over the agenda stretched 45 minutes, and gave immediate evidence of burgeoning division within the USCCB.
The agenda eventually passed, after 59% of voting bishops struck down a motion that would have allowed indefinite debate Thursday over the drafting of a document on the Eucharist, which would address, in some form, the question of whether Catholic politicians who support legal protection or state funding for abortion should receive the Eucharist. After that motion was defeated, the agenda in its entirety was passed with support from 86% of voting bishops.
Supporters of the proposed amendment said it was important that all bishops be heard, while critics said the amendment was a “delaying tactic” that amounted to passing a “filibuster” provision for a document that has been controversial among the bishops since at least January.
It was Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis who proposed from the meeting’s virtual “floor” that unlimited time be allocated to the bishops’ Thursday discussion on whether to commission the USCCB’s doctrinal committee to draft a catechetical document on the Eucharist, which would include a section on “Eucharistic coherence.” Rozanski’s motion was seconded by Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark.
Both Rozanski and Tobin were signatories of a May 13 letter to USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez which had called for the discussion of the document to be dropped from the meeting agenda altogether.
Reading from a prepared text Wednesday, Rozanski told the bishops that “as we prepare to discuss the weighty matter of the Communion document that will be presented by the doctrinal committee” the bishops are “keenly aware that we are looking for consensus.”
“So, I would ask that at this meeting we allow each bishop to speak on this important topic.”
The subject of a teaching document on the Eucharist is so important, and “the implications so far reaching,” Rozanski said, “that putting limits on the discussion will not help us or our people.”
There followed a nearly hour-long debate among the bishops about the proposal.
More than 15 bishops spoke during the discussion, with Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop John Wester, and Bishops Joe Tyson, John Stowe, Robert Coerver, and Shawn McKinght speaking in favor of the motion. All six were signatories to the May 13 letter urging that the prospect of the document be dropped from the June meeting agenda entirely.
The bishops who spoke in favor of the motion emphasized the importance of collegial, in-person discussion and broad consultation, and claimed their view was supported by a May 7 letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who urged the U.S. bishops to seek consensus among themselves in affirmation of Catholic doctrine.
Bishops who spoke critically of the measure, among them Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishops Joseph Kurtz, Paul Coakley, Alexander Sample, Joseph Naumann, William Lori, and Salvatore Cordileone, along with Bishops Michael Olson, Kevin Rhoades, and Michael Burbidge noted the motion would introduce an effective filibuster on the vote to allow the doctrinal committee to produce a draft document.
Those bishops added that, absent a draft text to consider and amend, extensive debate this week would result in unnecessary delay, and said the proper time for full consideration of the issue would come in November when there was a draft text to debate.
While the motion was defeated, it was the latest in a series of disagreements among U.S. bishops in recent weeks on the subject of a “Eucharistic coherence” document, which first was floated as bishops discussed the “unique challenges” posed by a Catholic president, Joe Biden, who supports federal funding and expanded legal protection for abortion.
Bishops have traded dueling essay in Catholic publications over the matter, even before a group of bishops sent a letter to Gomez urging that the topic be taken off the agenda of the conference meeting. That letter became controversial when it emerged that several bishops listed as signatories, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan, had requested their names be taken off the document, and when one bishop listed as a signer, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, told The Pillar that he had never given permission for his name to be on the letter in the first place.
Ahead of debate over Rozanski’s motion Wednesday, retired Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo asked that time be added to the meeting agenda for the bishops to discuss a pastoral plan of response to executive orders and other policy actions from the Biden administration which have expanded legal protections for, access to, and funding for abortion, some of which, Pfeifer said, supported “infancticide.”
Pfeifer’s motion was ruled ineligible, since retired bishops are unable to propose amendments to the agenda from the floor.
Before the agenda was brought under consideration, conference president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles began the bishops’ Zoom meeting Tuesday by reading a letter he had received from Archbishop Joseph Augustine Di Noia, OP, the Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.
“I have heard from many [of the U.S. bishops] about the proposed document from the committee on doctrine on the meaning of the Eucharist, and how we plan to address it in this meeting,” Gomez said. Noting that “many opinions have been expressed,” the archbishop said he also wished to share with the bishops a letter he received from the CDF in response to the conference’s plans.
“Your Excellency,” Di Noia wrote, “on May 24, 2021, this congregation received your memorandum sent to the bishops of the United States, which included a brief outline prepared by the doctrine committee to propose to the body in June.”
“This dicastery is grateful for the information and looks forward to the informal review of the eventual draft of a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church,” the CDF senior official said.
The letter from Di Noia “looking forward” to the bishops’ draft text, appeared to take for granted the USCCB’s approval of the committee’s continuing work.
While the drafting proposal is widely expected to be passed by a vote of the bishops on Thursday, conenttious debate over the issue also seems likely to continue, during both public and private sessions of the USCCB’s meeting, which lasts through Friday.