What else to expect at the USCCB’s upcoming online meeting

Analysis: USCCB

Catholics could be forgiven for believing that the only thing the U.S. bishops will discuss at their virtual spring assembly this month is the issue of “Eucharistic coherence.” 

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The preliminaries to that discussion have included dueling essays in Catholic periodicals, attention from global media syndicates, and even an effort spearheaded by a few cardinals to keep the topic off the meeting agenda entirely

Eucharistic coherence may be the main attraction for casual observers of the U.S. bishops’ conference, but the astute will note that while the June assembly is only a few hours of Zoom meetings spread over a couple of days, the agenda is not without other items of interest.

The last time the U.S. bishops’ conference met in person was 18 months ago, November 2019. At that meeting, Archbishop Jose Gomez was elected USCCB president, and the bishops debated rather contentiously their message for the 2020 presidential election. That all feels rather far in the distance now. 

By this year’s June 16-18 meeting, Gomez’ presidential term will be halfway concluded, and, while politics will certainly be part of the bishops’ agenda, the schedule itself will be focused on the sacramental, the liturgical, and the pastoral.

The bishops are expected to continue their series of votes on new liturgical translations for the Liturgy of the Hours and other liturgical translation projects conducted by ICEL, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. If you ask a priest, he’ll tell you that getting the translation project finished, so that liturgical and prayer books can be definitively updated and published, is a priority of the highest order.

A bishops’ temporary working group on youth and young adults is expected to give an update on plans to develop a “national pastoral framework document on young people, inspired by Pope Francis' Christus vivit and reflecting the pastoral situation in the United States.”

While that update may well generate some discussion, a vote on the subject would be limited to whether or not the working group has approval to develop a text, not on a text itself. Voting on the text itself would almost certainly come in either November 2021 or June of next year.

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Perhaps most significantly, the bishops are expected to vote on the approval of a draft “pastoral framework for marriage and family life ministry,” conference officials have said in recent months. The document is almost certain to pass a vote of the bishops.  

The draft “pastoral framework” on marriage is an outgrowth of the 2015 apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, Amoris laetitia, a kind of application of the themes developed in that text for priests, deacons, and lay Catholics engaged in pastoral ministry with married couples and their families. 

It was in development already during the November 2019 meeting, the most recent in-person meeting, at which apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre told the U.S. bishops that “families continue to demand of dioceses and parishes the accompaniment envisioned by Amoris laetitia” adding that “the pastoral thrust of this pontificate must reach the American people.”

The pastoral framework is expected to address the message of that exhortation.

In fact, given the themes of Amoris laetitia, some involved with the document’s development have described it as “accompaniment for accompaniment” — a kind of vademecum for the missionary ministry of presence encouraged by Pope Francis.

Sources have told The Pillar that the pastoral framework does not take up the most controversial debate spurred by Amoris laetitia, namely the question of whether a Catholic who is divorced and in ongoing sexual relationships with a civil spouse may be admitted to Holy Communion.

Of course, given how divisive that question has been among U.S. bishops, it is possible that some will be discontented with a document that seems to punt on the controversy, or at least keep its focus elsewhere. The virtual discussion may shift to whether a more overt reference to the question should be included in the document. 

Given, however, the controversy that has surrounded the other pending discussion on the Eucharist, the bishops may prefer to keep their powder dry before that discussion begins.

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The discussion on “Eucharistic coherence” is formally a vote on whether the bishops’ committee on doctrine should vote to develop a “teaching document” on “how best to help people to understand the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist as the center of their Christian lives,” Archbishop Gomez told bishops in a May 22 memo.

But most controversial is what the document might say about whether Catholic politicians supporting legal protection and federal funding for abortion — among them President Joe Biden — should receive the Eucharist. 

The idea for the proposed document actually began in a bishops’ working group on the Biden administration, so it’s no surprise that the issue is what’s drawn attention to the text.

While Gomez and other conference officials say the scope has been broadened because of the need for cohesive teaching on the Eucharist, it’s no secret that the document has been contentious largely because of its progenic connection to the Biden working group, and the public disagreement among U.S. bishops over the ideas of exhorting pro-abortion politicians not to receive the Eucharist, or even prohibiting them to do so.

But the controversy has been fueled in part because of a broad misunderstanding about what the document will actually do. Some media reports have suggested the bishops could develop a national policy on pro-choice politicians and Holy Communion, and a letter from the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith even mentioned that notion, despite the fact that the conference does not have the legal authority to do so. 

And while individual bishops have spoken out to defend the idea that a pro-abortion Catholic politician could be prohibited by his own bishop from receiving the Eucharist, the document seems most likely to stay in the realm of the catechetical — explaining why a politician at odds with Catholic teaching on any number of issues ought not receive the Eucharist — rather than suggest a normative course for diocesan bishops. 

Bishops have speculated to The Pillar in recent days that the signers of a letter which opposed discussing the issue in June might make a motion from the floor — or, the virtual floor, as it were — to table the discussion until the conference can hold its meetings in person. 

Critics of that idea, however, point out that because the June 2022 meeting of the U.S. bishops is a retreat, rather than a business meeting, a delay on approving the text’s drafting could mean a wait of at least 18 months, if not longer, before an actual text could be voted upon. If the bishops vote during the June meeting to approve the drafting of a text, they can schedule subsequent discussions at the regional level and in other contexts to offer feedback, even as drafts are circulated, without prompting a protracted delay of the document’s release.

It seems unlikely a move to table the discussion will have enough support to pass, and it seems likely the bishops will pass the measure to begin the text’s drafting. But along the way, the rhetoric is likely to be heated.

And despite the glaring and global spotlight on that discussion, it won’t be the only business worth watching when the bishops log onto their Zoom call.