How should US bishops read the Ladaria letter?

Analysis

On Friday, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez about the U.S. bishops’ plans to address Eucharistic coherence, and specifically the question of how to respond to pro-abortion politicians who present themselves for Communion.

Ladaria’s letter was widely portrayed as throwing a “wet blanket” on the desire of a growing number of American bishops to address the public witness of Catholic politicians, like President Joe Biden, who make political capital out of their religion, while driving policies which go directly against Church teaching and the moral law.

But was the letter from the head of the CDF a slap down, or was it actually a roadmap for the U.S. bishops to take a tougher line? 

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Despite widespread media presentation of Ladaria’s response to Gomez as a slap-down, reading the full text presents a more rounded picture.

For a start, Ladaria makes it clear in his letter that Rome is not reaching down into U.S. affairs uninvited. On the contrary, it is a response to a letter from Gomez, assuring the prefect that any statement the U.S. bishops might consider would be sent to Rome for prior vetting. 

Moreover, Ladaria frankly acknowledges that the U.S. bishops have been individually asking his department for advice for some time on the matter of pro-abortion politicians and Communion, and that it was he who suggested to the U.S. bishops that the matter be taken up by the USCCB.

“This Congregation advised that dialogue among the bishops be undertaken to preserve the unity of the episcopal conference in the face of disagreements over this controversial topic,” Ladaria wrote. 

“The effective development of a policy in this area requires that dialogue occurs in two stages: first among the bishops themselves, and then between bishops and Catholic pro-choice politicians within their jurisdictions.”

Far from being a refutation of a plan by the USCCB, Ladaria makes it clear that formulating a “national policy” was suggested by some individual bishops during their ad limina visits to Rome — not by Gomez. 

The cardinal merely restates canonical facts of which the conference is already well aware: while the bishops can and should discuss controversial topics among themselves in order to preserve unity, it remains beyond the scope of the conference to produce a policy binding on individual members; it is for individual diocesan bishops to handle each case as it comes within their jurisdictions, and to do so in dialogue with Catholic politicians under their pastoral care.

And even in this, Lardaria is actually just repeating what then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote on the same topic in 2004, although the future Pope Benedict was clear in the application of canon 915 in cases where individuals did not respond to the private pastoral corrections of their bishop.

Similarly, Ladaria’s observation that it would be “misleading” to suggest that Eucharistic coherence begins and ends with the issues of abortion and euthanasia was hailed by many as a kind of rebuke to the USCCB’s language of “preeminent priority” when speaking of abortion. But, again, within the context of the letter itself, this is clearly not the case; the cardinal is commenting on the CDF’s own 2002 Doctrinal Note which he recommends to the U.S. bishops and which itself singles out abortion and euthanasia for special consideration.

The U.S. bishops themselves have frequently been at pains to make clear, including during floor debates at conference meetings, that abortion being a “preeminent” evil to be opposed does not mean it is their exclusive concern.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the U.S. bishops are divided on the issue of reception of Communion, both theologically and politically.

Some, like Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, and Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix have penned public, pastoral warnings about the danger to the souls of Catholic politicians who have worked to expand the genocide of abortion, and the compounded danger of receiving Communion in a state of grave sin.

Others have pushed back. 

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Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego published a recent essay in which he argued that “depriving the president or other political leaders of Eucharist based on their public policy stance” would constitute a “weaponization of Eucharist” for political purposes.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago recently wrote to Archbishop Aquila in response to the Denver archbishop’s own essay on the subject in America Magazine, in which Aquila discussed “the error that any baptized Catholic can receive Communion if he or she simply desires to do so.”

“The Eucharist is a gift, not an entitlement, and the sanctity of that gift is only diminished by unworthy reception. Because of the public scandal caused, this is especially true in the case of public officials who persistently govern in violation of the natural law, particularly the pre-eminent issues of abortion and euthanasia, the taking of innocent life, as well as other actions that fail to uphold the church's teaching regarding the dignity of life,” wrote Aquila, prompting Cupich to write to express “a number of concerns” and ask Aquila to publicly clarify his argument.

In this context, Cardinal Ladaria’s concern, expressed to Gomez in his letter last week, that the “contentious nature” of the debate risks becoming “a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger Church in the United States,” seems well-founded.

But, rather than proposing that they drop the subject, Ladaria actually suggests that the bishops’ “extensive and serene dialogue” should begin with an affirmation of basic principles:

“The bishops should affirm as a Conference,” wrote the cardinal, “that ‘those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life.’”

Whether this is something that the USCCB would be able to affirm unanimously is an open question, though it seems unlikely that opposition to it would come from bishops like Aquila, Cordileone, or Olmsted. 

There does appear to be a clear and vocal minority among the U.S. bishops who seem to argue that the Church should give pro-abortion Catholic politicians a wide berth (and Communion) as they pitch themselves both as devoutly Catholic and avowedly pro-abortion, in order to avoid the impression of the faith being used in politics. But Ladaria does not encourage the U.S. bishops to stay out of politics, far from it.

Quoting from the CDF’s own Doctrinal Note, the cardinal says that “Christians are called to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism. Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society.”

The U.S. bishops will likely need “extensive” debate to convince all of their number to adopt Ladaria’s “non-negotiable” stance on ethical principles. But they may decide it is a long debate worth having, if it can bring a minority of their brothers into line with the rest of the conference, and ensure that universal principles will be unanimously upheld.