At this week’s virtual meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference, bishops spent two hours and 56 minutes debating among themselves whether they should vote to authorize a committee to draft a document that would be itself debated at a future meeting, most probably in November.
Two hours and 56 minutes.
In two hours and 56 minutes, you could watch “ET” with 55 minutes to spare.
You could watch “Night at the Roxbury” twice, and still have 12 minutes to contemplate why you ever watched “Night at the Roxbury.”
If you wanted to watch “The Godfather,” you could do it, but you’d miss the final minute of the credits, so you might never know who did the catering or oversaw the film’s Sicily-based crew members. (Actually, I can’t do that to you. It was Antonio Brandt, and he did a fine job).
The point is that two hours and 56 minutes is a lot of time, and much more than bishops typically give over to discussing whether a document should be written that they’ll later spend even more time debating again.
But the debate on Wednesday and Thursday over whether the USCCB’s doctrine committee should compose a draft statement on the Eucharist in the life of the Church demonstrates how opposed to the document proposal some bishops really are, and how laborious the debate over a drafted document could eventually become, at least without a plan to keep things under control.
Of course, it won’t be known until Friday afternoon whether a majority of bishops voted to approve the document’s drafting. But it seems likely that slightly more than half the U.S. bishops — probably between 55% and 60% — voted in favor of the text, and the committee will probably be commissioned to write the document.
The debate was long and often circular. Critics said the proposal — that the USCCB’s doctrine committee be commissioned to draft the text on the Eucharist — has fomented deep division, largely because some bishops have tied the document’s section on “Eucharistic consistency” to Catholic President Joe Biden’s consistent support for abortion’s expanded legal protection and federal funding, and because the idea of a document began in a bishops’ working group formed shortly before Biden was inaugurated.
Supporters of the document said Catholics who openly and publicly defy Church teaching while continuing to receive the sacraments cause division, not bishops proposing to teach Catholic doctrine. Unspoken, but sometimes implied, was the suggestion bishops who keep silent about prominent Catholics defying Catholic doctrine on critical moral issues might also be a cause of division.
During the debate, some bishops questioned the motivations of those with whom they disagreed; opponents of the motion suggested its supporters were only motivated by politics, while supporters said they were driven by pastoral zeal for souls, and that critics were pursuing false notions of unity.
Other bishops were irenic, expressing respect for the bishops with whom they disagreed, and urging charity amid obvious substantive disagreement.
But supporters of the measure said the very existence of controversy over whether to draft a document on the Eucharist — which they said would reflect basic Catholic doctrine — is symptomatic of the reasons why many practicing Catholics have lost trust in their bishops.
In a press conference after the debate Thursday, some bishops tried to downplay the friction in the conference that was starkly and manifestly evident to most observers. Division on the topic at hand began long before the bishops met virtually this week — in recent months, bishops have written dueling essays on the subject, lobbied each other for support and whipped votes, in some cases made requests for intervention by the Vatican, and, of course, authored a letter last month — even improperly listing at least one bishop as a signatory — urging Archbishop Jose Gomez to take Eucharistic coherence off the conference docket.
Some prominent bishops — even those who, like Cardinal Timothy Dolan, first signed that letter and later had their names removed — kept themselves on the sidelines during Thursday’s debate. Others, like doctrine committee chair Bishop Kevin Rhoades, took on a visible leadership role that far exceeded their previous engagements.
Several bishops who spoke to The Pillar after debate — from both sides of the issue — praised Rhoades for maintaining a calm and affable demeanor, seemingly open to feedback, during a tense conversation in which he was under the spotlight.
The topic is hugely contentious, to say the least, and the reasons are complex. There is a newly apparent but seemingly deep-seated theological disagreement among the bishops about whether any objective condition renders a person unfit for admission to the Eucharist, an evident discomfort among some bishops about directive use of episcopal authority, and practical disagreement about how to engage with a Catholic president who advocates for policy contrary to Catholic teaching.
There is also, according to several bishops who spoke to The Pillar, doubt among the episcopate about whether all bishops really share equal commitment to opposing legal protection for abortion in the U.S, and concern among bishops that some of their brethren seem to have given themselves over to political partisanship — on both left and right, as it happens.
There seem also to be markedly differing perspectives about what practicing Catholics — those who actually attend Mass regularly — expect from their bishops. While some bishops on Thursday expressed concern that any mention of exhorting Catholics not to approach Holy Communion would drive people away from Mass, others argued that practicing Catholics expect their bishops to talk about public officials and doctrinal fidelity, and are increasingly disillusioned by their perception of episcopal timidity on the subject.
After the meeting Thursday, one bishop told The Pillar that “people who actually go to Mass think we only care about saving our asses and counting our money. And this isn’t going to help. Because those are the people who expect us to be teachers.”
It is obvious that President Biden has taken a set of policy positions at odds with Catholic doctrine, and obvious that some Catholics find that discouraging. But the debate is made all the more complex because while bishops have tried to downplay that fact to stress collaboration, others have tried to obscure the obvious fact that the proposed document is motivated in part, at least in its genesis, by the unique challenges posed to the Church in the U.S. by Biden’s presidency.
At issue now is that the approval motion to draft the document will likely pass on Friday, but not with the two-thirds majority of the vote that will be needed to see the text eventually promulgated. This means that if supporters of the document want to see it get beyond the drafting phase, they’ll need to pick up some votes.
There are 151 days until November 15, the day that USCCB begins its fall general assembly in Baltimore, which will be the first bishops’ conference meeting to take place in person since bishops met in that same city in November 2019.
If the doctrine committee wishes to pick up more votes, it will likely take up a suggestion echoed frequently during Thursday’s debate, both by supporters and opponents of the measure, and use those 151 days to help organize meetings of bishops at the regional level — there are 15 USCCB regions of dioceses in the U.S. — or even at the even smaller provincial level — there are some 32 metropolitan provinces of dioceses in the U.S., along with some similar structures for Eastern Catholic dioceses.
At Thursday’s press conference, Bishop Rhoades said his committee would start work on the non-controversial, catechetical sections of the document immediately — presuming they’re given permission to draft it — and then “before we would actually finish a draft,” solicit “input from the regions...through regional meetings [held] throughout the summer,” consulting finally with conference committees in September and October.
Soliciting input through regional meetings will have three effects. The first is substantial: The document’s most controversial section, on “Eucharistic consistency,” could actually be shaped by the feedback. The second is psychological: If bishops have the chance to speak in to the document’s creation, they may feel a sense of ownership of it and be more likely to vote for it. The third is tactical: If bishops have ample opportunities to speak about what the document should say, they will lose the ability to claim they weren’t sufficiently consulted when the text is presented for approval.
It is often a wise tactic to recruit critics as collaborators, and the approach may well work for those bishops who want to see the document passed.
But the potential impact is that the document, which was never going to offer more than a generalized exhortation that those who act publicly to oppose Church teaching should not receive the Eucharist, may well become more vague and abstract during the drafting process. By the time the text is finished, it may not really make anyone happy, but get approved anyhow just so the blasted thing can be done with.
Documents which suffer that kind of death by dilution tend to end up gathering dust on chancery bookshelves and in parish supply closets.
That point, of course, raises the most important question for the bishops to consider: After spending what will prove to be many more than three hours honing, tweaking, developing, debating, amending, and approving a document, will it say enough for the effort to be worth it? Will it encourage diocesan bishops to lead with confidence and teach with clarity? Will it inspire greater faith in the Eucharist? Will it rouse repentance and conversions? Will it be read?
That remains to be seen. But it would be a lot to expect from a bishops’ conference document.
Still, whether the eventual document will contribute meaningfully to the bishops’ broader — and important — project of “Eucharistic revival,” or whether it will go the way of long-forgotten episcopal conference documents of the past, will become known only after the debating has been finished, and well after the bishops have discovered just what it is they are willing — and able — to actually teach together.
Perhaps the document’s most interesting lessons will be about the bishops themselves, and be revealed mostly along the road to publication.