As the U.S. bishops’ conference held regional meetings and a closed-door executive session in a Baltimore hotel Monday afternoon, two groups held demonstrations outside the hotel. One group urged that bishops prohibit pro-choice politicians from receiving Holy Communion, and the other said that no one should be barred from the Eucharist.
At an event called “The Men’s March,” about 200 people met late Monday morning at a Baltimore Planned Parenthood more than a mile from the waterfront hotel where bishops are holding their first in-person general assembly since November 2019.
After prayers and speeches at the Planned Parenthood, the group walked along sidewalks toward the bishops’ hotel, with Tyler, Texas’ Bishop Joseph Strickland toward the front of the line.
Strickland was one of three bishops to lead the group in a recitation of the rosary outside the bishops’ hotel; he was joined by Grand Island, Nebraska Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt and Bishop Joseph Coffey, an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of the Military Services.
The event’s organizer, Catholic radio executive Jim Havens, told The Pillar that the march aimed to urge bishops to “face the reality of the ongoing daily mass murder of the preborn.”
“We do not treat the pre-born as if they are equal to any other born person. We just don't. If we did, what would we do if it was any other segment of the population that was, under an unjust law being mass murdered by the thousands every day? So we have to look at the reality of it. And if we do, then we have to say, we're not doing enough. And the bishops with their moral authority — they’re our moral leaders and our faith leaders. We want to call them on to do more.”
“These men who showed up here, they're trying to do whatever they can with the little influence that we have. Certainly we have a great deal of influence in terms of vocation, of being a husband and a father, and the way we can raise our kids. But, in terms of changing the culture right now, really the bishops are the moral and faith authority, and we need them to really use the full authority of their office to lead us to do far more than what's being done,” Havens added.
Several participants in the march carried signs reading “Enforce canon 915,” in reference to a provision of canon law which indicates that Catholics persisting in public and serious sin should not be permitted to receive Holy Communion. One priest who spoke during the event wore a sweatshirt with the same message, and the event’s website included links to sites at which “Enforce canon 915” shirts and signs can be purchased.
Canon 915 has been understood by many bishops, including former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, to apply to politicians advocating persistently for legal protections for abortion. In recent months, some U.S. bishops have said that the canon ought to be applied to Catholic U.S. President Joe Biden, while others, including Biden’s bishops in Washington, DC and Wilmington, Delaware, have said they have no intention of prohibiting the president from the Eucharist.
The issue has become controversial among the U.S. bishops’ conference. The bishops are expected to approve this week a document outlining Catholic teaching on the Eucharist. While neither canon 915 nor pro-abortion politicians are mentioned in a draft text of that document, some bishops have said they will propose amendments that deal directly with “Eucharistic worthiness.”
The bishops’ conference does not itself have the authority to prohibit anyone from receiving the Eucharist, which is in canon law a matter reserved to diocesan bishops.
Havens told The Pillar that the “Men’s March” event was “not principally” about politicians and the Eucharist.
“But that’s certainly an element of it, and the canon is there — canon 915 — and if it applies in any way, it certainly seems to apply in this way that we have a president who is claiming to be a devout Catholic, who is certainly obstinate in manifest grave sin. And it just seems clear to any common sense person, any faithful Catholic, to say this is not about politics, this is about morality,” Havens said.
While Havens organized the event, it was sponsored by some organizations which have faced criticism by members of the bishops’ conference, including the Lepanto Institute and Church Militant, an online media organization. Conference vice-president Archbishop Allen Vigneron criticized the organization last year for comments the Archdiocese of Detroit said were “racist and derogatory,” and in 2011 told the group it could not call itself Catholic.
In attendance at the event was conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who is scheduled to speak at a rally organized by Church Militant on Tuesday.
Havens told The Pillar. he was not concerned about “how people are going to think about who our partners are.”
“I’m proud to partner with Church Militant. I think that their work is important,” Havens added.
“They’ve been willing to put the word out for us so that men could even hear about what’s going on today and have the opportunity to respond and show up,” Havens said, adding that he hopes that “mainstream outlets” will partner with his efforts in the future.
Bishop Paul Coffey, one bishop in attendance, told The Pillar that he had joined the group to pray the rosary because “I got invited” — the group says it sent a letter to each U.S. bishop attending the bishops’ meeting this week.
Coffey said he thought the group’s primary message is that “all men need to do more. Not just the bishops, but all men.”
In remarks to the group, he urged them to “continue to pray, continue to fight, continue to urge life.”
In remarks to The Pillar, Coffey added that “every bishop’s got to preach about this from the pulpit. Every priest, every bishop, every deacon. We’ve gotta preach.”
Though dubbed “The Men’s March,” and mostly attended by men, there were some women in attendance. But some passersby during the rosary commented on a lack of women at the event.
Havens said it was organized as an event for men because “there is a man connected to every abortion, and men are certainly a big part of this problem. So men have to be a part of the solution.”
One woman in attendance, Katherine Adelaide of Carroll County Maryland, told The Pillar that she had come to the march “as a helper.”
“I am very proud of the men for being out here. And I do believe that men need to take more of a leadership role in ending abortion since they are part it. So I’m definitely here to support them, and as a helper.”
While attendees of the march prayed the rosary outside the bishops’ hotel, another group walked much of the hotel’s perimeter with a very different message.
Catholic Organizations for Renewal, which calls itself a “coalition of lay-led Catholic progressive groups opposed to the politicization of Communion,” organized a “prayerful witness” walk it called “Bread not Stones”
Bread not Stones, attended by approximately 50 people, aimed to “call the bishops to conscience” and “oppose orthodoxy tests at Jesus’ table,” according to a press release from the event’s organizers.
Among the groups organizing the event were the Women’s Ordination Conference, DignityUSA, Future Church, and Catholics for Choice, which says it represents “the voices of the majority of Catholics who believe in reproductive freedom.”
Jamie Manson, a former columnist at the National Catholic Reporter and now president of Catholics for Choice, told The Pillar the group was asking bishops to “be pastors not politicians. We’re asking them to do what Jesus asked us to do and feed all people. That is the core of the Gospel, and so we’re asking themselves not entangle themselves with right-wing politics.”
Manson said that while the U.S. bishops’ draft document on the Eucharist does not call directly for politicians to be prohibited from receiving Holy Communion, “my concern is they’re going to continue to harass people like President Biden and Speaker Pelosi, and that this will continue, regardless of what the document says.”
“Bread not Stones” was not explicitly a counterprotest of the “Men’s March,” Manson added.
“We weren’t here to react to them, we didn’t even know they were coming. We were here to ask the bishops to give bread not stones, to feed people, because I think even more conservative leaning Catholics don’t like the Eucharist being used as a tool of political intimidation or weaponization.”
Asked whether there are any legitimate reasons why a person might be prohibited from Holy Communion, Manson said “no. I don’t think there was a line for Jesus. And so I don’t think we should have a line either.”
Even those who are not baptized should be permitted to receive the Eucharist, Manson said.
“I think all who are hungry, and want to partake in this extraordinary sacrament, I think you welcome them,” she added.
In 2000, the U.S. bishops’ conference said that Catholics for Choice’s efforts are “directed to rejection and distortion of Catholic teaching about the respect and protection due to defenseless unborn human life.”
The group is “practically speaking, an arm of the abortion lobby in the United States and throughout the world. It is an advocacy group dedicated to supporting abortion,” the conference added. The conference has repeated similar statements since 2000.
After the “Bread not Stones” demonstrators processed past the bishops’ hotel on Monday, they held a short prayer ceremony on a nearby corner. The demonstration concluded with the popular 1984 hymn “All Are Welcome.”
One attendee at “Bread not Stones,” Al Risdorfer, told The Pillar that he is an “independent Catholic priest,” because, as a gay man, “I wasn’t welcomed” in the Catholic Church.
“It was one of those things where I woke up one day and realized who I was, and I couldn’t imagine a God who loved me on Monday would hate me on Tuesday...but you know, the guys at the top with the funny-looking hats were all giving the party line,” Risdorfer said.
He mentioned what he called “the red line,” even in Catholics parishes he perceives to be welcoming of gay members.
“If I want to get married, forget it. If I want you to help me adopt a child, or bury my partner that someone has been together with for 50 years. That’s all past the red line. And in independent Catholicism, I just don’t have that.”
For his part, Risdorfer told The Pillar that he hopes bishops meeting in Baltimore “will go back and understand that Jesus’ love is not something they can chop up and split up and divvy out, according to whatever they want. Christ never denied anything to anybody.”
“Except the only group he got mad at were arrogant religious authorities.”
While the groups’ viewpoints were broadly divergent, participants at both demonstrations had one thing in common: Many seemed certain that most bishops would not hear what they had to say.
One woman at “Bread not Stones” told The Pillar her “nom de guerre is Mrs. Paul Owczarek, because in the Catholic Church, I have no separate identity other than as an appendage to my agnostic husband.”
Owczarek, who told The Pillar she has left the Catholic Church, said there is “not a chance,” the bishops would hear her message, but she thought it was important to be there anyway.
A priest at the Men’s March, Fr. Fidelis Moscinski, CFR, told The Pillar that his group’s message was “not adversarial” to the bishops, aiming mostly to pray for bishops and support them.
But asked what bishops would take away from the group’s demonstration, the priest sighed heavily.
“Honestly, I don’t think they’re going to take away from it much at all.”
“But it’s important that we give public witness to our faith,” the Franciscan friar said.
“Our presence here is something that St. Francis, I believe, would certainly approve.”
Ed. note: This report initially misquoted Jamie Manson’s response to questions about the “Men’s March.” While Manson told The Pillar her group was not organized to “react” to the other demonstration, we initially transcribed the quote to say “reach out,” rather than “react.” We apologize for our transcription error, which has been corrected.
This story was updated at 11pm ET on Nov. 15, 2021.