USCCB Eucharist draft document focuses on real presence, not Communion denial

News: Eucharistic coherence

The draft text of a prospective U.S. bishops’ conference document on the Eucharist is focused on a call to “enter more deeply by faith and love into this great Mystery of Mysteries.”

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A draft text of the document, which was finalized in September and circulated to the bishops last month, addresses the subject of “Eucharistic worthiness,”  —  the states of grace and sin which the Church teaches affect a Catholic’s suitability to receive the sacrament. But as drafters predicted in June, the draft includes no specific mention of high-profile Catholic politicians in favor of abortion.

It does not include any recommendations for the denial of Communion, despite some media predictions it would do so.

The 26 pages of a draft text obtained by The Pillar focus mostly on the Eucharist as a gift, as the real presence of Christ, and as a sign and cause of of communion with Christ and his Church.

The draft document calls Catholics to worship, to transformation in holiness, and to prophetic proclamation of the Gospel, characterized by a commitment to love for neighbor, solidarity with the poor, and a commitment to justice and the common good.

“The Lord is with us in the Eucharistic Mystery celebrated in our parishes and missions, in our beautiful cathedrals and in our poorest chapels,” the draft document says.

“He is present and he draws near to us, so that we can draw nearer to him. The Lord will be generous to us with his grace if we, by his grace, humbly ask him to give us what we need.”

The document concludes with a call to discipleship: “Brothers and sisters, let us thirst for the Lord who first suffered thirst for us. Let us adore Jesus who ever remains with us, on all the altars of the world, and lead others to share in our joy.”

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Reflections on Eucharistic worthiness are situated within a section on conversion.

“We are all sinners and sometimes fail to live up to our vocation as disciples of Jesus, and to the promises of our baptism. We need continually to heed Christ’s call to conversion. We trust in His mercy, the mercy which we behold in His body broken for us and His blood poured out for us for the forgiveness of our sins,” the draft text explains.

“While all our failures to do what is right damage our communion with God and each other, they fall into different categories, reflecting different degrees of severity,” the draft document says, before quoting Pope Francis on the medicinal nature of the Eucharist, which “wipes away venial sins, while also helping us to avoid more serious sins.”

“There are some sins, however,” the document says, “that do rupture the communion we share with God and the Church.”

“As the Church has consistently taught, a person who receives Holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin not only does not receive the grace of the sacrament, he or she commits the sin of sacrilege by failing to show the reverence due to the Body and Blood of Christ.”

There has been persistent media speculation about whether the text would directly address the reception of Holy Communion by Catholic politicians supportive of liberalized abortion policy, including President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — especially because the impetus for the document has largely been understood to be the inauguration of Biden as the country’s second Catholic president.

During debate in June over whether to draft the document, some bishops emphasized that any text from the bishops’ conference would focus on catechesis, or teaching, on the Church’s basic beliefs concerning the Eucharist.  

Members of the document’s drafting committee said that while Biden’s election had prompted some discussion, the real reason for the document is a set of recent polling data which suggested that a significant number of practicing Catholics either misunderstood or did not believe in key Church teachings related to the sacrament, including the nature of the true presence in the Eucharist species.

The committee’s leadership insisted that while the text would address generically the topic of “Eucharistic coherence,” it would not address particular situations — and emphasized that the U.S. bishops conference does not have the authority to prohibit anyone from receiving the Eucharist.

But several bishops, on both sides of the debate, suggested that an eventual text might admonish pro-choice politicians not to receive the Eucharist, or even outline policies to prohibit them, with some expressing either the concern or the hope, depending on their viewpoint, that an eventual text would name names.

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Before the draft text was circulated, some U.S. bishops had urged that it borrow from a 2006 document published by a confederation of South and Central American episcopal conferences; that text’s composition is widely understood to have been overseen by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis. 

That document, known as the “Aparecida document” said directly that “legislators, heads of government, and health professionals,” should not receive the Eucharist if they were involved in “the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia.”

“We must adhere to ‘eucharistic coherence,’ that is, be conscious that they cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals,” the Aparecida document explained.

The USCCB’s text is not as specific as the Aparecida document.

Instead, the current draft quotes from a 2006 U.S. bishops’ document on the Eucharist, which states that if a Catholic “were knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues” in personal or professional life, it would “seriously diminish” communion with the Church.

Such a Catholic “should refrain” from receiving the sacrament, the quote from the 2006 document concludes. 

The document adds that Catholics who receive Communion in a state of mortal sin present “a contradiction.”

“The person who… has broken communion with Christ and his Church but receives the Blessed Sacrament, acts incoherently, both claiming and rejecting communion at the same time. It is a counter-sign — it expresses a communion that has in fact been broken.”

The draft text notes that “reception of Holy Communion in such a situation is also likely to cause grave scandal to others.”

Quoting St. John Paul II, the text explains that while individual Catholics must ordinarily discern whether to receive the Eucharist, “in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm of the Church” the Church imposes sacramental discipline out of “concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament.”

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The draft text’s section on conversion also encourages recourse for Catholics to the sacrament of penance.

“We have this beautiful opportunity to be restored to grace. All it requires is that we be truly sorry, resolve not to sin again, confess our sins, and do the assigned penance. We encourage all Catholics to a renewed appreciation for this wonderful sacrament in which we receive the Lord’s pardon and peace,” the text explains.

Since the bishops first discussed drafting a text on the Eucharist, the process has been complex, owing largely to concern that a letter on “Eucharistic worthiness” published during Biden’s term in the White House would seem unduly focused on the president, or might “politicize” the Eucharist.

In May, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote to Archbishop Jose Gomez, USCCB president, with a rare intervention into conference affairs, urging the U.S. bishops to engage in “extensive and serene dialogue” among themselves before approving a text, and advising the USCCB to make “every effort” to engage with other episcopal conferences “in order both to learn from one another and to preserve unity in the universal church.”

In the same month, a group of bishops wrote to Gomez, requesting that the possibility of drafting a statement be taken off the agenda of the bishops’ conference June virtual assembly. Their letter became controversial when Archbishop Dennis Schnurr told The Pillar that he did not give permission for his name to be included as a signatory on the letter to Gomez, though it was listed anyway. Schnurr was one of four bishops listed as signatories who distanced themselves from the letter after it was sent.

During their June assembly, bishops debated the prospect of drafting a statement on the Eucharist for hours, before voting 168 to 55 in favor of authorizing the conference’s doctrine committee to proceed with the drafting.

The conference is expected to debate the draft text during its plenary assembly Nov. 15-18. A schedule for that meeting — the first in-person meeting for the bishops’ conference since November 2019 — has not yet been announced.