The USCCB meeting: Don’t believe the hype 

Analysis

The much anticipated June assembly of the USCCB begins Wednesday, during which the bishops will vote on a raft of measures, including candidates for sainthood, new translations for the Liturgy of the Hours, national pastoral frameworks for young people and on marriage and family life. 

The bishops will also, of course, vote on whether to draft a new catechetical document on the Eucharist. This vote, which is scheduled to take place as the close of business on Thursday, has generated months of media coverage and speculation, and seen bishops trade private letters and public essays on the subject of Eucharistic coherence. But can the meeting, and the vote, live up to the hype?

Almost certainly not. 

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While some bishops have certainly made it clear that they have differing approaches on the subject of how to proclaim the Church’s Eucharistic teaching, the reality is the bishops will vote only on whether to draft a document for later discussion and debate. Whether the vote passes unanimously or fails by a knife-edge result, exactly nothing will have changed regarding what the Church teaches, or what the bishops are free to do in their own dioceses. 

But if there is an expectation among Catholics that the stakes are much higher than they actually are, it is perhaps understandable. Much of the coverage over the last several months has pitched the proposal for a draft of a long and full document for future discussion as a heads-up vote on whether to deny President Joe Biden Communion. 

Of course, that is not the case, and it never was.

While secular outlets, and some Catholic media, have consistently pitched the bishops’ conference as angling to produce a national policy on denying the president and other notoriously pro-abortion politicians, that was never proposed by the USSCB, and never considered by the conference leadership, for the simple reason that it is beyond the group’s canonical authority. 

Some of the confusion appears to be linked to long-standing misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of the conference by secular outlets lacking familiarity with the conference’s long-standing priorities. 

One report, for example, asserted as fact that “conservative American bishops are largely out of step with Francis and his agenda of putting climate change, migrants and poverty on the church’s front burner.” 

Such claims, while they fit an easy-to-use partisan political lens, appear wholly divorced from reality when set next to, for example, the dozens of USCCB statements denouncing restrictive and marginalizing immigration policies issued during the Trump administration.

There is, of course, a real discussion among the bishops about how to address the linked issues of Catholic civil authorities, like Biden, who support the “right” to take innocent human life through abortion, and the loss of understanding in the Church’s teaching on the spiritual reality and power of the Eucharist. Presenting the Church’s teaching on faith, morals, and the sacraments in a coherent way is a key part of what the bishops mean when they speak about “Eucharistic coherence.”

But the urgency of that discussion among the bishops has little, if anything, to do with party-political affiliation or sympathy and much more to do with the pastoral care of souls — a point which bishops who have spoken publicly have repeatedly made.

While the example of Biden, who manifestly opposes the Church’s moral teaching through his administration’s policies while holding himself out as a devoutly observant Catholic, is likely to be flagged as an example of the kind of “incoherence” the bishops need to address among American Catholics, those expecting a stinging personal denunciation of the president are unlikely to see it.

Similarly, anyone predicting a moment of high drama courtesy of Rome are likely to be disappointed. 

In November, 2018, the USCCB’s fall Assembly kicked off with a shock intervention from the Holy See, telling the U.S. bishops they could not proceed with their agenda to vote on adopting new policies in response to the McCarrick scandal. Many commentators have been pitching a similarly activist approach from Rome this time around, despite any evidence to support it.

Much has been made by some outlets of a letter sent by Cardinal Ladaria, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez, offering his advice on the bishops’ plans to discuss a document on the Eucharist.

That letter, which called for “exhaustive and serene” discussion among the bishops, did not, despite repeated media characterizations asserting the contrary, instruct, suggest, or even hint that the U.S. bishops ought to shelve the issue at their June meeting. Instead, Ladaria offered sources from the CDF which the American bishops could consult to help shape their own deliberations.

Perhaps the most quoted part of Laradia’s letter, which the The Pillar published in full, was his observation that it would be “misleading” to suggest that Eucharistic coherence begins and ends with the issues of abortion and euthanasia. This has been widely cited as a rebuff to the USCCB agenda for this week, and to its policy priorities more generally.

In fact, Ladaria was not offering a comment on the U.S. bishops at all, but on a document from the CDF which he was recommending for their consideration, and which highlighted the issues of abortion and euthanasia as being of special weight.

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Since Ladaria’s letter was circulated, there has been a steady drumbeat of reports that Rome is about to (or has already) got involved to tell the U.S. bishops how to proceed - or not - with discussing the Eucharist, abortion and President Biden. 

While many “reports” insist Rome has warned the USCCB off the issue entirely (it has not), others have asserted that the Vatican tacitly weighed in by allegedly denying an alleged request from Biden for Communion at a Mass with the pope ahead of an allegedly scheduled meeting that didn’t happen. 

No such reports appear to have a solid basis in fact. 

The reality is that the chances the Vatican would reach down into the internal discussions of the U.S. bishops to stop them voting to draft a document which would then have to be discussed and voted on again, before being forwarded to Rome for consultation anyway, are (and have always been) vanishingly remote.

This does not mean, of course, that desire for this result is a figment of media imagination. More than 60 bishops did “sign” a letter to Gomez calling for the whole matter to be dropped from this week’s agenda, and at least one American cardinal has reportedly solicited Rome’s intervention.

The letter — first from 68 bishops, now 65 —  calling for the subject of a document on the Eucharist to be dropped from the meeting agenda throws up a number of interesting dynamics. It’s an open question, for example, how many of the supposed signers actually support the letter’s principal request - one has said he never agreed to sign it at all, two more have asked for their names to be removed, and another has clarified he wants preparation of a document to continue.

While the bishops will likely raise the letter, and the manner in which “signatures” were collected, during their private executive session, the chances of a public argument on the subject are probably modest, at best. If the matter is raised at all, it is most likely to be alluded to in the context of complaints that the text made it into the public domain at all.

The letter itself argued that the entire subject of Eucharistitc coherence is too loaded, too sensitive, for the bishops to even begin to treat it remotely during a virtual meeting. Instead, it said, the matter would be better deferred until at least November, when they could reconvene in person.

Now fears that the debate could descend into an argument across Zoom may prove overblown. Moments of high drama at USCCB meetings are few and far between at the best of times, and usually rely on building murmurs of support or dissent in the room, in response to one speaker or another. 

A 200-person Zoom call is not a forum through which it is easy to either command rapt attention or generate a buzz of reaction from the floor. Trading prepared remarks on camera, the bishops are likely to be guardedly polite, and eschew the kind of overt confrontation which is being hyped in some commentaries. 

While there may be a motion to vote on the letter’s call to kick the can down the road until November, it is unlikely to pass, and more likely to trigger a counter vote to affirm what the U.S. bishops already say on the subject — which would defeat the whole purpose of a delay.

By far the most likely outcome is that the bishops will continue to engage in exactly the kind of “exhaustive” discussion called for by Cardinal Ladaria. While “serenity” might be too much to expect, the bishops’ instinct to remain mutually respectful, at least in public, means media expectations will likely run out long before episcopal tempers.