After bishops endured several days of contentious debate over the Church’s Eucharistic disciplinary norms, a group of 60 U.S. Congressional representatives have weighed in, forcing the issue for some bishops from a theoretical debate to one far more practical, immediate, and closer to home.
One congressman’s tweet poses a vexing test of leadership for U.S. bishops’ conference president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, with similar tests for other bishops likely to follow. And for Gomez and the congressman, a clock is ticking, and the stakes are high.
The doctrine committee of the U.S. bishops’ conference garnered on Friday an overwhelming mandate to draft a document on the Eucharist, which would include a section on “Eucharistic consistency” so controversial that bishops spent hours arguing that even writing it would drive people away from the Church, plunge the bishops into toxic political strife, and create a rupture between the Catholic bishops of the U.S. and Pope Francis, the Vicar of Christ on earth.
Despite those arguments, 75% of voting bishops gave approval for the committee to draft a text, far exceeding the expectations of most conference watchers.
All the controversy is over a proposed section likely to say that Catholics who manifestly oppose the doctrine of the Church on grave matters should refrain from Holy Communion. It will not mention any person by name, and probably will not mention even any particular profession.
The idea for a statement began with a working group on the “unique challenges” posed for the Church by the abortion policy agenda of Catholic President Joe Biden, and some bishops have argued the document is needed because of the scandal posed by a politician advocating for federal funding of abortion while also receiving the Eucharist.
But for all the fight, the substance of the statement will hardly seem novel to those familiar with Catholic doctrine. It will say that Catholics conscious of grave sin or manifested opposition to Church teaching or governance should not receive Holy Communion.
It is possible the document could give oblique reference to the notion that bishops have the canonical prerogative to prohibit such persons from Holy Communion. But it seems highly unlikely.
In short, the document will say what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, what the U.S. bishops said already in 2006, and probably something far less specific than what the Latin American bishops’ conferences said in 2007.
But it will hardly matter to many Catholics what the document will actually say, because it has already been framed on the front pages of the nation’s biggest media outlets as a direct rebuke of Joe Biden, or even as a national policy barring the president from Holy Communion.
And that’s where things get interesting. So interesting, in fact, that by the time the letter is written, the document’s actual approval may seem like an afterthought to a showdown that began Friday evening.
Sixty Catholic Democrat members of Congress issued a statement on Friday saying they “agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life,” and work on policy initiatives aimed at “reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies to be carried to term and provide resources to raise healthy and secure children.”
But the representatives also said they follow their consciences, not Church teaching, on the legality of abortion.
“In all these issues, we seek the Church's guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience,” the representatives wrote.
They also urged against the “weaponization” of Holy Communion — a phrase used by bishops who opposed the USCCB’s drafting of a letter on the Eucharist.
“The Sacrament of Holy Communion is central to the life of practicing Catholics, and the weaponization of the Eucharist to Democratic lawmakers for their support of a woman’s safe and legal access to abortion is contradictory,” they added.
“We solemnly urge you to not move forward and deny this most holy of all sacraments, the source and the summit of the whole work of the gospel over one issue.”
The letter either misunderstood or willfully misrepresented what the bishops were up to, and could be seen as an effort to demonstrate the lawmakers’ commitment to ensuring legal protection for abortion.
Still, there was at first a good chance that individual bishops might have tried to reach out to lawmakers quietly, while the conference itself ignored the letter.
Until one congressman, Representative Ted Lieu of California, raised the stakes.
The congressman, who has a law degree from Georgetown University, was baptized a Catholic in college after he attended Cleveland’s St. Ignatius High School, according to NPR.
He has a 100% legislator rating from abortion lobbyist NARAL.
“Dear USCCB, I’m Catholic and I support contraception, a woman’s right to choose, treatments for infertility, the right for people to get a divorce, the right of same sex marriage,” Lieu tweeted Friday.
“Next time I go to Church, I dare you to deny me Communion.”
Whether by coincidence or by design, Lieu represents a district sitting squarely in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which is led by Gomez.
And the congressman has a history of challenging bishops on Twitter.
So now Archbishop Gomez faces a practical and immediate challenge: A Catholic in his diocese has made a statement that seems designed to flaunt the willful inconsistency of holding political positions that obstinately defy Catholic doctrine, while continuing to receive the sacraments.
Does Gomez have to prohibit the Congressman from receiving the Eucharist? Certainly, Catholics who have heard tough talk from bishops on that subject over the past few months will expect that he will. And Lieu himself seems to have “politicized” the Eucharist by framing reception of Holy Communion into an act of implicit challenge of his own archbishop.
Few canon lawyers would have difficulty classifying Lieu’s tweet as evidence of “obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin,” the criteria by which a Catholic can be denied the Eucharist.
But if Gomez does prohibit him, Lieu will surely wear the prohibition like a badge of honor, to borrow a phrase from Cardinal Timothy Dolan. And, more important, other pro-choice Catholic politicians will probably try to provoke their bishops as well. The whole thing could become an escalating movement, fueled by a social media backlash against the bishops and support from the nation’s leading newspapers.
On the other hand, if Gomez doesn’t prohibit the Congressman from receiving the Eucharist, won’t he seem to be endorsing the bishops who argued this week that policy positions should never prevent a Catholic from receiving Holy Communion? And isn’t that the opposite of the archbishop’s presumed stance on the issue? And won’t Lieu and his supporters continue to taunt Church leaders?
Further, isn’t Gomez boxed in by bishops who said this week that the credibility of bishops depends on their willingness to teach and lead firmly on the Eucharist? By the measure laid out by those bishops, won’t the archbishop’s credibility as a teacher of Catholic doctrine be impugned if he ignores the obvious obstinance of Lieu’s tweet?
Does it matter that Lieu seems intent on provoking Gomez to action? Does the archbishop have an obligation to prevent the scandal of his reception of Holy Communion anyway? Even if it spurs a movement of other politicians tweeting similar things? Does that possibility change the equation?
Those questions are almost certainly on the archbishop’s mind, and probably being discussed in his chancery this weekend.
Those who know him well say Gomez does not like to be pushed around. Nor does he love to be at the center of controversy, and he is often seen seeking conciliation amid disagreement.
But it seems unlikely that Lieu will see any value in backing down from his challenge, and it seems quite likely that Gomez’ critics among the bishops, some of whom have publicly disparaged the archbishop’s leadership, are watching the situation with rapt attention. They may well have also clued in Rome.
Whatever he decides to do, Gomez will have to say something, and probably soon. Lieu is getting enough headlines for his tweet that he’ll probably make it a point to be at Mass on Sunday, and with reporters in tow. Whether he receives or does not receive the Eucharist, Lieu will be sure to tweet about it.
All of this means that while the U.S. bishops’ conference has several months to decide what exactly they want to say about “Eucharistic consistency,” Archbishop Gomez probably has only until Sunday morning, before Congressman Lieu heads to Mass.