Updated: Bishops respond to ‘totally unacceptable’ USCCB agenda letter

News: USCCB

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco called an effort to push Eucharistic coherence from the USCCB’s June agenda “unacceptable,” and called for U.S. bishops to engage in more mutual prayer, and a free and honest debate on the issue.

Cordileone is one of several bishops to come out in public support of the USCCB leadership following a report by The Pillar on a letter to Archbishop Jose Gomez, signed by more than 60 bishops, calling for Eucharistic coherence to be dropped from the agenda at the conference’s June meeting.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Pillar, Archbishop Cordileone addressed the letter to Gomez, who is the conference president.

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On May 25, The Pillar reported that more than 60 bishops cosigned a letter to Archbishop Gomez, pressing him to suspend discussion of a possible document on the Eucharistic at USCCB’s June meeting, despite a recent letter from the Vatican’s doctrinal office counseling the bishops to continue discussing the matter. 

Discussion on the topic was scheduled in March through the ordinary USCCB procedure for setting meeting agendas. 

Cordileone, who is chairman of the bishops’ conference’s Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth, issued a recent pastoral letter on the issue of Eucharistic coherence and abortion.

“I cannot tell you how aggrieved this makes me feel,” Cordileone told The Pillar

The archbishop called the letter from the more than 60 bishops to Gomez part of an attempt to circumvent conference procedures and free discussion among the U.S. bishops.

“I'm really alarmed at this move. We are following our conference procedures. I'm very bothered by [this letter].” 

“The administrative committee voted overwhelmingly to put this on the agenda for the June meeting,” said the archbishop. “I know Archbishop Gomez is committed to following the procedures as we agreed on them. I think this is totally unacceptable.” 

Asked about the number of bishops who had signed the letter, a minority of voting conference members, Cordileone said he does not think the number is representative, either of the conference membership, or even the signers themselves.

“I know they say they have [around] 70 bishops who signed, but many of those bishops are auxiliaries in the dioceses of the main protagonists of this letter,” he said. “I know two bishops and I've heard there are others, who agreed to sign it and then later realized exactly what this was about and are upset, and have withdrawn support.”

On Tuesday, The Pillar reported that Cardinal Timothy Dolan had originally signed the letter but later asked for his name to be removed.

“I know other bishops who were heavily pressured to sign it, but didn't, so I think the number is artificially inflated.”

“I'm very disturbed by this action,” Cordileone said. “I believe many of the bishops who signed onto this letter were well-intentioned, but I think whoever was promoting this action, it seems clear to me, they didn't get their way. So they're taking these alternative means to interfere with the procedures of the conference.”

The letter was sent to Gomez amid ongoing disagreement among bishops about the question of admitting pro-choice Catholic politicians to Holy Communion, and after strife between Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and other bishops, including the bishops’ conference leadership, that has centered around engagement with the Biden administration.

Several archbishops and bishops made statements in support of the USCCB leadership in the hours following the news of the letter. 

Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, came out in support of a statement by Archbishop Cordileone Tuesday evening, saying “the USCCB needs to discuss and discern our way forward as shepherds with fraternal reflection on the teaching of the Eucharist and its derivative and charitable responsibilities.” 

Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver issued his own statement following The Pillar’s report May 25, restating his position that “the issue of Eucharistic coherence is primarily a question of love, a question of charity toward our neighbor. St. Paul is clear that there is danger to one’s soul if he or she receives the body and blood of our Lord in an unworthy manner.”

“As bishops, we are failing in our duty as shepherds if we ignore this truth and how it is manifesting itself in today’s society, especially with regards to those in prominent positions who reject fundamental teachings of the Church and insist that they be allowed to receive Communion,” Aquila said.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, issued his own statement Wednesday morning, expressing his own support for the USCCB leadership and conference process.

“Sadly, there are some bishops and cardinals of the Church who not only are willing to give holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians, but who seek to block the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from addressing the question of Eucharistic coherence, which has taken on heightened urgency with the election of President Biden, a Catholic who promotes the evils of abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism,” Paprocki said.

“I fully support the decision of Archbishop Gomez and the Executive Committee of the USCCB to proceed with discussion of the topic of Eucharistic coherence at our June meeting to authorize the Committee on Doctrine to draft a document on this important subject for debate, amendment, and vote at our November meeting.”

Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample said Wednesday expressed his “full support for the president of the USCCB, Archbishop Gomez, and the direction he has provided to the body of bishops regarding the question of Eucharistic coherence.”

“[Archbishop Gomez] has laid out a process which includes wide consultation on a particular timeline. Some of my brother bishops have asked to delay the process, but this would be a failure of our pastoral responsibility and a failure of collegiality,” said Sample in a statement to the press responding to The Pillar’s coverage of the letter to Gomez.

“It would also be contrary to the guidance recently provided by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I stand by Archbishop Gomez and the leadership of the USCCB, and their commitment to provide guidance on pastoral questions surrounding the Holy Eucharist.”

In writing to Gomez, the more than 60 bishops cited a May 7 letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as they “respectfully urge that all Conference wide discussion and committee work on the topic of Eucharistic worthiness and other issues raised by the Holy See be postponed until the full body of bishops is able to meet in person.”

Ladaria’s May 7 letter urged that “dialogue...take place among the bishops so that they could agree as a Conference that support of pro-choice legislation is not compatible with Catholic teaching.”

In the letter to Gomez, the bishops, led by Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, said that the “high standard of consensus among ourselves and of maintaining unity with the Holy See and the Universal Church as set forth by Cardinal Ladaria is far from being achieved in the present moment,” and called for a suspension of discussion of any possible document on Eucharistic coherence until the bishops could meet in person. 

“Moreover, as the Prefect’s sound theological and pastoral advice opens a new path for moving forward, we should take this opportunity to re-envision the best collegial structure for achieving that,” the text added.

Speaking to The Pillar, Archbishop Cordileone disputed the idea that Ladaria’s letter called for the bishops to drop their planned discussion.

Noting that the discussion had already been approved by the USCCB administrative committee, Cordileone said the agenda for the June meeting was a proper expression of the wishes of the conference and correct procedure.

“Then we find out that Cardinal Cupich [of Chicago] and Cardinal Tobin [of Newark] are in Rome. Then shortly after that comes this letter from Cardinal Ladaria, that's being spun as if he's telling us to not go forward with this.”

“So there's this interference with the procedures of the conference,” said Corileone. 

“Let us be clear: in the June meeting what's on the agenda is voting whether or not to write and issue a letter on Eucharistic coherence. We are not debating the document itself. Again, this was voted overwhelmingly by the administrative committee to be put on the agenda.”

Any actual text of a document, Cordileone said, would not be ready before the bishops’ meeting in November, which is scheduled to be in-person. 

“Hopefully the document will be ready by then. The doctrine committee, I know, is committed to having it ready in November, we'll go through the usual modification and amendment process. And the document itself will be debated and voted on. And that will be in all likelihood, it will be an in-person meeting.” 

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The archbishop told The Pillar that proper conference procedure could appear bureaucratic from the outside, but following proper process was vital to forging consensus among the bishops and respecting the rights of all the members.

“That's why we have these procedures: [It] kind of takes some time. It's a bit cumbersome, but it's in order to be fair to everyone. So everyone can have a voice,” he said. 

Regarding the letter to Gomez calling for the discussion of a document on the Eucharist to be dropped, he said that working with and through the conference process was the collegial way to proceed. 

“If they don't like the idea of a Eucharistic coherence document, let them vote against it in June and let the procedures of the conference go forward. And so everyone can have a voice and it can be fair and objective. [This letter] is very worrisome to me in terms of the division it's going to create in the Church.”

Cardinal Cupich, one of the letter’s lead signatories, has previously criticized Gomez and the USCCB leadership for allegedly failing to respect conference procedure in the release of a statement on the Biden administration on Inauguration Day. 

Cordileone drew a comparison between Cupich’s criticism of Gomez in January and the apparent attempt to circumvent conference procedure over the June agenda.

“This is the other thing that bothers me. Some of the supporters of this letter asking Archbishop Gomez to stop [the discussion in June], they're interfering with the procedures. They're the same ones who falsely accused him of not observing procedure [in January].” 

Gomez “did not violate the procedures,” in January, Cordileone said. “He did exactly what he said he would do. He consulted, and he was advised to form this working group to give him some recommendations on how to interact with the new administration. The working group did its job and then it sunset.” 

“One recommendation was that he issue a letter on the day of the inauguration. And then the other recommendation is to ask the doctrine committee to work on the Eucharistic coherence document. So he consulted, he [followed] the advice that he got.”

“So this was also very, very, very troubling to me,” Cordileone said. “I see bishops criticizing other bishops in public, [and] there's no basis to it. It did not violate procedures. And now they're trying to violate the procedures.”

The archbishop told The Pillar that the recent disputes were a sad breakdown of communion among the bishops of the United States.

“Sadly, it's manifesting divisions that have been around for a while,” said the Archbishop. 

“We knew the divisions were there, but we used to be more respectful to each other. So it always held out the possibility that we could find some common ground where we disagreed. But now that these kind of public actions are being taken, that are very aggressive, the divisions that were festering are now beginning to manifest themselves with greater visibility and integration.” 

“So I would ask all paths to reclaim the fullness of our Catholic faith,” he said. “I mean, what the Eucharistic coherence document is about is, well, it's not singling out any one issue either. There are a number of very grave issues we have to deal with, but if we think about the abortion issue, which the bishops agreed is the preeminent issue, the vast majority agree, it's the preeminent issue., and then we come with deeper mystical [issues]. What this is about is protecting babies and the blessed sacrament.”

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At the height of the McCarrick scandal, in November 2018, the USCCB met in Baltimore to discuss adopting new measures to increase episcopal accountability. At the beginning of that meeting, the Vatican instructed the bishops not to vote on their proposed measures and instead, Pope Francis urged the bishops to go on retreat together, which they did the following month.

The Pillar asked Cordileone if, given the divisions in the conference and the Holy See’s desire for collegiality and unity, there is a need in the conference to make more time for common fraternal prayer among the bishops.

“Yes, there is. And we are going to implement that,” said the archbishop. 

“We've discussed that and we're going to make more time for prayer at the spring meeting, potentially also at the November meeting. I would like to see us have a day of prayer before the actual business part of the meeting begins. I think that'd be very beneficial.”