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Do the bishops need a document on the sacrament of penance, too?

The bishops of the United States on Friday overwhelmingly voted to draft a teaching document on the Eucharist.

The decision was widely regarded as a step toward a national policy or statement from the USCCB on the denial of Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion, which it was not. But widespread reactions to the prospect of bishops asserting settled Catholic moral teaching might suggest those bishops need to readdress basic sacramental truths about sin, contrition, and forgiveness, along with any document on the Eucharist.

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The backlash to Friday’s USCCB vote was instantaneous. Sixty some pro-abortion Catholic Members of Congress issued a letter declaring themselves, in effect, to be both Catholics in good standing and unapologetic defenders of legal abortion.

One of the signatories went further, taking to social media to affirm his stance against some of the Church’s moral teachings and “daring” the bishops to deny him Communion.

The representatives’ letter itself claimed that the “weaponization of the Eucharist to Democratic lawmakers for their support of a woman’s safe and legal access to abortion is contradictory,” and noted that no public figure had been threatened with denial of Communion for supporting other (Republican) issues of public policy at odds with the Church’s teaching, including on provision for the poor, immigration, and the inadmissibility of the death penalty. 

Commentators on social media, some of them Catholics, chimed in too, saying that if the bishops were to deny someone Communion over abortion, they should speak with similar clarity about Catholics engaged in extra-marital sexual relationships.

Both these claims, that abortion is a starkly partisan issue and that it is incoherent (to borrow a term) to discuss only the sin of abortion in the context of Eucharistic worthiness, merit consideration. Both, too, combine to present the bishops with a thorny problem which the American hierarchy has created for itself over generations.

It is true that the Democratic Party is, currently, absolutely pro-abortion as a core principle. It is equally true that the Republican Party is, by and large, institutional in its opposition to abortion, or at least in favor of its restriction, while championing other policies at odds with different levels of Church moral teaching. 

Given the disposition of the two parties, it’s understandable that a strong coherent statement on the consequences of moral complicity in the evil of abortion will be viewed through a partisan lens. But this is an inherited problem for the current generation of American bishops, whose predecessors shied away from offering clear answers on the subject of abortion in previous decades, when the issue was not a partisan litmus test. 

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Since then, the Church’s teaching on abortion has not changed, but the Democratic Party’s has. Had the bishops of previous decades offered an unapologetic presentation of the moral consequences of cooperating in abortion then, when the appearance of partisanship was less acute, the matter would be nowhere near as politically contentious as it is today. 

Moreover, with decades of clear teaching precedent to draw on, the emerging calls for a truly “coherent” approach to the moral consequences for Catholic politicians supporting policies opposed to Church teaching across a range of issues would be far easier to respond to than they are now.

The current clamor over President Joe Biden is not because his position is unique among Catholics, or even Catholic politicians. It is simply this: that the example of a president pushing an absolutist pro-abortion agenda, while pulling the White House press corps along with him to weekly Mass, has dialed up the volume on a question the bishops have been trying not to answer for years, to the point where it is now too loud to ignore. 


The lesson of the last few decades would seem to be that the longer the bishops fail to address an obvious question with the obvious answer of the Church’s teaching, the more their position appears to be as incoherent as Biden’s.

Of course, the current furor is not just a result of episcopal timidity. Indeed, there have always been, and are now, bishops who have not shied away from applying the Church’s teaching consistently, albeit sensitively and without unnecessary public fanfare. 

The apparent incoherence of the bishops’ collective position on public grave sin and public communion (capital and lower case ‘c’) with the Church seems to reflect real disagreement about the nature of sinfulness itself within the conference.

During this past week’s debate, many bishops spoke about the context of sin and reception of Communion. Several of them were at pains to emphasize that “we are all sinners” and “no one is worthy” to receive the sacrament. This is true, to a point, and the reason why penitential rites are a central part of the Eucharistic liturgy.

But the Church, like any reasonable parent, makes clear distinctions between kinds of wrongdoing. A child sneaking chocolate is in need of correction, yes, but a child playing with fire needs a dramatic intervention to prevent graver harm.

The appearance of some bishops to emphasize that we are all sinners almost to the point of implying that, since all of us are, none of us need to worry about it, can be seen as a real contributor to the current pastoral crisis. This too, has been a generational problem for the U.S. bishops, born out of an ecclesial culture of the 1970s, which bought into a wider popular cultural ridicule of so-called “Catholic guilt.” 

Disciplinary rigor, like an overactive conscience, fell out of favor and was discouraged in the formation of a generation of clergy. The backlash to the bishops’ vote Friday would seem to underline the long term effects of this trend, and suggest more urgent action is needed in response.

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During the debate at the USCCB meeting this week, much was made of the number (a reported majority) of Catholics who do not believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is indeed a catechetical crisis in need of attention. But, if the last 24 hours are any indication, there is an equal crisis of faith among American Catholics about the very nature, or even existence, of sin as a spiritual reality. And given the rhetoric of some bishops, that confusion is understandable.

Within the context of the conference’s discussion on Eucharistic coherence, the real problem, it seems, is not the number of pro-abortion politicians receiving Communion. It is the number of Catholics who don’t seem to acknowledge there’s actually such a thing as the state of grave sin, still less a terrible spiritual harm attached to it. 

How to address this crisis may now become the elephant in the conference room at future USCCB meetings. One possible way forward, though, seems to suggest itself.

In the ordinary sacramental life of the Church, Catholics are taught and receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist together, but in order, because they are linked. The celebration of the Eucharist, and the reception of Communion, is the core of the sacramental life of the Church. But it is meant to be lived within the context of ongoing conversion, personal examination of conscience, and the seeking of forgiveness before approaching the altar.

The bishops may find their efforts to revive belief in, and devotion to, the Eucharist prove a non-starter, unless Catholics can first be convinced why they need its salvific power. While a teaching document on the Eucharist is now being drafted, the bishops may find they need to first issue a similar document on sin and the sacrament of penance.

Given the divisions which emerged among the bishops over the drafting of a document on the Eucharist which just skirted the problem of individual sinfulness, a debate about sin, and authentic contrition and forgiveness could prove traumatic. But they may also find producing one document without the other proves to be, well, incoherent.

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