The spring virtual meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference began on Wednesday with a 45-minute debate over how much debate should be permitted before a vote on whether a conference committee should be permitted to draft a document that will be debated on a future date, probably in November.
Got all that straight? It was a somewhat dizzying display of parliamentary proceduralism, at least for some observers.
The debate was the meeting’s first round of a long-expected clash between bishops over the wisdom of writing and publishing a document that would address “Eucharistic coherence” — namely, the question of who should and should not receive the Eucharist — while a Catholic in the White House supports expanded legal protection and federal funding for abortion.
The bishops who oppose moving forward on drafting the document wasted no time raising objection to the way in which it would be debated.
They will likely raise more procedural objections ahead of debate on Thursday, before raising substantive concerns about the plan during the debate itself.
Whether or not the conference votes to have a text written, those same bishops will probably continue to raise objections, perhaps more colorfully, when the bishops meet in executive session on Friday.
Even after the meeting, it is not difficult to imagine that some of those bishops might take their concerns to the Vatican, in order to argue that while drafting the document was greenlit, it was not through a “serene and extensive dialogue,” as called for by a Vatican official last month.
But all of those moves were telegraphed weeks ahead of the bishops’ virtual meeting. Watching them play out in real time is interesting, but very little has happened thus far that could realistically be called unexpected.
What might come as a surprise to some observers, though, is the other fight over “Eucharistic coherence” waiting for the bishops during Thursday’s meeting.
The bishops will be asked to vote upon “Called to the Joy of Love,” a document called a “pastoral framework,” on marriage and family ministry. The text is essentially a guidebook for lay and clerical pastoral ministers to families and married couples, which says it is inspired and guided by Amoris laetitia, a 2016 text from Pope Francis on marriage and family life.
Amoris laetitia sparked years of disagreement and conflict among bishops and theologians in the Church, especially over a footnote, footnote 351, which seemed to suggest that couples in “irregular marriage” — that is, civilly married couples maintaining a sexual relationship, in which at least one party had been previously married and not received an ecclesiastical annulment — might be able to receive the Eucharist, in at least limited circumstances.
The footnote started a wildfire.
Critics said its implications would contravene directives from Pope St. John Paul II, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Ecumenical Council of Trent, and the words of Sacred Scripture itself. Supporters said that was a willful and merciless misreading. The debate saw dueling explanations from episcopal conferences, disagreement over whether some interpretations could be considered authentic or binding, reciprocal accusations of heresy among theologians, and, on the whole, rank division among the Church’s leadership and intellectual classes.
It was not too long ago that a vote on the U.S. bishops’ read of Amoris laetitia would have been considered the main event of a USCCB meeting.
But the scandal of Theodore McCarrick emerged in June 2018, and, at least in the United States, debates over Amoris moved to the back burner. The attention that had been given to competing views on Amoris was given over first to McCarrick, then Vigano, Trump, Biden, vaccines, and eventually “Eucharistic coherence.”
The Amoris controversy came roaring back Wednesday afternoon, when Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich asked Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who chairs the committee which drafted the “pastoral framework,” why the text seemed not to have drawn from the pope’s ideas to better “integrate” couples in irregular marriages into the life of the Church. Those ideas are expressed most especially in Chapter Eight of Amoris laetitia.
It seemed obvious — given that Cupich has spoken frequently and favorably of the footnote — that Cupich had in mind footnote 351.
Cordileone countered that his committee’s text had drawn from the principles of Chapter Eight, but the discussion was quickly drawn to a close, as time for the meeting expired.
In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Arlington’s Bishop Michael Burbidge, who chairs the USCCB’s communications committee, said that “Archbishop Cordileone answered the question quite clearly” by saying that themes important to the pope were included in the USCCB’s document.
Burbidge added that Cordileone had “answered Cardinal Cupich’s question by reassuring him, ‘Yes, absolutely, the Holy Father’s main theme is that we don’t abandon anyone, we find a way as Church to heal and accompany them, that’s very much part of the document.’”
“And I think that was part of the response, and concern, I think, was alleviated,” he said.
It seems unlikely that Cupich’s concern was actually alleviated, or that the cardinal was reassured. Cupich was not looking for main themes. He was looking for specifics, and by his reading of the text, they weren’t there. And the cardinal seemed intent on doing what he could about that.
Ahead of Thursday’s debate on the document, bishops are permitted to submit proposals for amendments; Cupich is reported to have submitted several proposals, some of which aim at a more concrete and direct reference to the aspects of Amoris laetitia he thinks have been omitted from the bishops’ document.
During scheduled debate on Thursday, and with those proposed amendments in hand, Cupich is likely to again press for clarity on why the U.S. bishops’ document does not directly take up footnote 351 in its treatment of Amoris laetitia. At least a few other bishops will probably join him.
Cordileone might say that the document doesn’t address the question with specificity because making judgments about whether particular individuals ought to receive Holy Communion is a matter appropriately left to diocesan bishops. He might also say that several U.S. dioceses have already issued interpretative guidelines for Amoris laetitia, and that the USCCB’s document aims not to undermine or supplant them.
It seems unlikely that answer will satisfy Cupich, despite the cardinal’s insistence in the other “Eucharistic coherence” debate that the diocesan bishop, and not the USCCB, is exactly the authority to make judgments about who ought, or ought not, receive Holy Communion.
But Cupich is not the unknown commodity in the debate over “Called to the Joy of Love.”
The real question is whether Cupich’s objections will be enough to convince more than one-third of the bishops at the meeting to vote against the document, and thus sink it, or whether Cordileone’s responses will persuade two-thirds to vote in favor of the text.
If the Wednesday vote on the meeting’s agenda has any predictive value, it is worth noting that 41% of the bishops voted with Cupich and Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski to expand debate on the Eucharistic document, while 59%, a majority but less than two-thirds, voted with those who said that measure amounted to a filibuster.
Since the vote to approve “Called to the Joy of Love” requires two-thirds, and the measure to draft a text on the Eucharist requires a simple majority, it is possible that the voting on Thursday could end with the marriage document defeated and the Eucharist document given a go-ahead.
That result, given that the points of contention on both votes are similar, might be judged somewhat “incoherent” by observers.
But at issue in both cases is a theological disagreement over whether there are certain objective, external, demonstrable situations that, quite apart from subjective personal culpability, are such an offense against the unity of the Church as to warrant exclusion — either self-imposed or mandated — from Eucharistic communion. And, if there are such situations, what they are. And how they should be communicated.
That theological disagreement, which pits, perhaps falsely, canonical and theological guidance from the Vatican against the outlook of mercy called for by Pope Francis, is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, and, in the face of ever-secularizing culture, may well be exacerbated.
What is not clear is how long the bishops will wish to debate the issue at the bishops’ conference, and whether they will soon decide more frequently to instead to make judgments for their own dioceses, and instruct their own priests accordingly, according to their own theological convictions.
But on Thursday, at least, the question will remain before the bishops’ conferences, and define the debate over two “action items” on the bishops’ agenda. And if Wednesday’s debate over the terms of that debate has taught anything, it’s that the questions won’t be resolved quickly, and before the meeting ends, plenty of bishops will have something they wish to say.