U.S. Catholic bishops spent most of 2021 in protracted debate about “Eucharistic coherence” - their euphemism for appropriate reception of Holy Communion, and especially the controversial question of whether “pro-choice” Catholic politicians should be admitted to the Eucharist.
But with Roe v. Wade likely to be overturned and a Democratic political push to preserve legal protection for abortion, the differing approaches of two U.S. bishops may soon both come to the test — raising the question of whether one prominent bishop might change his approach on the question, and whether another might put his rhetoric on the subject into action.
While bishops debated “Eucharistic coherence,” the perspective of Cardinal Wilton Gregory was watched closely, because Gregory is diocesan bishop in the nation’s capital, and thus has pastoral authority over sacramental discipline at parishes regularly attended by President Joe Biden and by Catholic lawmakers when they are in the Archdiocese of Washington.
In 2020, Gregory told journalists that he had no plans to prohibit Catholic President Joe Biden from receiving the Eucharist. The cardinal told Catholic News Service he wanted to develop a “a conversational relationship where we can discover areas where we can cooperate that reflect the social teachings of the church, knowing full well that there are some areas where we won’t agree.”
Gregory later told Religion News Service that he would not deny Biden communion over his position on abortion because “I don’t want to go to the table with a gun on the table first.”
During last year’s bishops’ debate over “Eucharistic coherence,” Gregory helped to organize a letter signed by more than 60 bishops, which urged the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference to drop the issue from a conference meeting agenda.
In September 2021, Gregory acknowledged at the National Press Club that Biden “is not demonstrating Catholic teaching” with his position on abortion.
But since news broke that the Supreme Court might be on the precipice of overturning Roe v. Wade, Biden has called strenuously for Congress to protect abortion’s legality with federal legislation. The president, who pledged last year a “whole-of-government” plan to protect access to abortion in Texas, where is it significantly restricted by law, has reportedly set his administration to consider all possible mechanisms to facilitate access to abortion, including the prospect of Medicaid funding for women to travel across state lines for abortions.
If Roe is overturned, the president may well sign several executive orders designed to make it easier for women who live in states prohibiting abortion to obtain them.
While Biden lives in Washington, Gregory is his chief pastor. And as he watches a public Catholic who once had reservation about Roe commit himself vigorously to an active role in abortion protection, the cardinal may well find himself wondering if the dialogue strategy is working — and, if not, what else he should do.
Gregory’s rhetoric on the subject is likely to intensify as Biden gets closer to action. But to most observers, it seems highly unlikely that Gregory will go so far as invoking canon 915 to prohibit Biden or others from communion.
Still if the archbishop decides the dialogue is not happening, he will certainly lament Biden’s choices.
And Catholics in the Washington archdiocese - in addition to a variety of Catholic groups and commentators - will likely raise concern about the prospect of scandal if Biden receives the Eucharist at Mass while pro-choice activists protest at churches, and the president works to expand federal involvement in abortion funding or access.
The situation will, in short, become a live issue for Gregory, and for the other episcopal advocates of dialogue over sacramental discipline. The cardinal is not the type to yield to public pressure against what he thinks is right, but it is at least possible that Biden’s intensified abortion advocacy, coupled with the concerns of Catholics that will probably soon be voiced, will lead him to wonder about the limits of the dialogue approach.
The advocacy of Catholic pro-choice politicians also puts a certain kind of pressure on the bishops who argued last year that such lawmakers should face a prohibition on receiving Holy Communion.
San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone was among the leaders of that group. During USCCB debates, in interviews and statements, and in a Washington Post op-ed, Cordileone argued for sterner sacramental discipline, invoking the memory of Archbishop Joseph Rummel, who in 1962 excommunicated Catholics opposing the racial integration of Catholic schools.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is a member of Cordileone’s congregation. She is also at the forefront of a movement to respond to the prospect of Roe’s demise with federal legislation protecting access to abortion.
Pelosi called the prospect that Roe could be overturned an “abomination” that would be the “greatest restriction of rights in the past 50 years – not just on women but on all Americans.”
While Cordileone has been outspoken on abortion’s immorality in recent days, he has apparently not taken steps to enact the kind of sacramental discipline he championed - in principle - last year. Perhaps it may be coming. But the archbishop may well be holding back on action he’s defended - in principle - perhaps out of concern that he won’t be supported by fellow bishops or by the Vatican, or perhaps out of concern about the possibility of serious local blowback.
Still, as Pelosi’s advocacy gets more vocal, there may be Catholics who wonder about the appearance of a disparity between her archbishop’s rhetoric and his action. For Catholics who expressed support for Cordileone and his collaborators last year, this will likely seem the moment for action - and reticence will be confusing, to say the least.
As Roe looks ever more likely to be overturned and Catholic politicians work to protect, expand, or fund abortion, a bishops’ debate that seemed mostly theoretical last year has taken on a kind of immediacy. And as they watch the bishops at the center of that debate, some Catholics may soon start asking what exactly all the maneuvering, politicking, and debates of 2021 were really all about.