What the bishops will and won’t say in their document on the Eucharist

Analysis: USCCB

The U.S. bishops will gather in Baltimore in a few weeks for their annual Fall Assembly. The agenda for that meeting will contain the usual mix of updates on ordinary business, committee elections, and votes to approve various texts issued on the conference’s authority.

But the most keenly anticipated item on the agenda will be the discussion of a draft document on the Eucharist, drafted by the bishops’ doctrinal committee. A debate on whether that document should mention pro-abortion Catholic politicians, and even whether it should be drafted at all, was the focus of national news, and much floor time, when the bishops last met in June. 

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While debate has continued since June, the text to be debated next month is likely to disappoint those expecting it to focus on politics and sacramental discipline. At the same time, it is also likely to provoke some opposition from those bishops who would rather that politics, and especially abortion, weren’t addressed in the text at all.

Teach first

The draft up for debate next month is most likely to focus on the basic principles of the faith, at least according to remarks from the bishops drafting it. While public attention has usually focused on the narrow issue of what some have taken to calling Eucharistic “coherence” or “worthiness,” the premise of the document is, first and foremost, as a teaching instrument.

Polling has shown that a sizable number of Catholics, even weekly practicing Catholics, either don’t believe in central tenets of the faith, like the true presence, or don’t fully understand them.

Assuming the text is adopted by the conference, it will sit alongside plans for a national program of Eucharistic revival. The bulk of a teaching document will likely focus on offering a doctrinal underpinning for that effort. 

When the text is eventually released to the public, many commentators will hunt for a controversial sentence or paragraph, probably skipping over the bulk of the pages, which are likely to represent the Church’s teaching on the nature of the Mass as both an act of worship and redemptive sacrifice offered to God. 

But, given the apparent decline in belief of those crucial teachings on the sacrament, which Vatican Council II called the source and summit of Christian life, that reflex would only seem to underscore the real problem facing the bishops: that the real nature of the Eucharist, and of Communion, has been largely sidelined in favor of cultural and political concerns.

Post pandemic

The Church in the United States, and in much of the West, is still wrestling with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and the changes it has forced on our daily lives for nearly two years now. While mass church closures and attendance limits have largely been repealed, for many Catholics the lifetime habit of Sunday Mass attendance was broken.

In many places, demand for Sunday streaming remains high, even where in-person attendance is possible. Bishops have slowly rolled back the blanket dispensations which suspended the Sunday obligation across whole dioceses, but whether all Catholics will feel obliged to return to churches remains an open question.

Cardinal Cupich of Chicago wrote last month on the “necessity” of the Sunday obligation, and on the Mass as “a matter of life and death,” and it seems a fairly safe bet that the bishops’ document on the Eucharist will focus, at least in part, on re-explaining to Catholics that encountering God in the sacrament every week is not a optional extra.

What you won’t see

Since June, the debate around legal abortion in the U.S. has only intensified, and the public positions of Catholics like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Biden has only seemed to harden against the teaching of the Church. In September, the president confirmed publicly that he now formally rejects the teaching of the Church (and the science of embryology) that human life begins at conception. 

At the same time, Pelosi has been received by Pope Francis, with Biden scheduled for a similar visit shortly before the bishops meet. The USCCB leadership has also had some face time with Pope Francis in recent weeks, during which, no doubt, Archbishops Jose Gomez and Alan Vigneron will have updated him on their plans for November.

When asked directly about whether pro-abortion politicians could or should be admitted to Communion, Francis a few weeks ago seemed clearly to say that they had broken communion with the Church, and might even be ipso facto excommunicated, and could not approach the sacrament. At the same time, he urged close pastoral accompaniment of Catholics who had broken faith with the Church. 

The pope seems unambiguous about the Church’s opposition to legal abortion, and appeared equally clear about the thorny issue of publicly pro-abortion politicians receiving Communion. On the other hand, he has also been clear that he doesn't like messy public confrontations and would be unlikely to favor the kind of pointed statement about politicians like Biden and Pelosi some of the U.S. bishops have called for.

Given this, it’s a safe bet to assume you won’t read the words “President Biden,” or probably even the word “politicians,” in the bishops’ document on the Eucharist. And there is little chance there will be any reference to denying anyone Communion. 

Expect instead some explanation of participation in the Eucharist as an act of communion with the Church, along the lines offered by Pope Francis on the same subject, and the need for all Catholics to manifest that communion consistently in their public lives as a key aspect of receiving the sacrament.

The other sacrament

Part of the debate around in June involved bishops discussing among themselves the notion of “worthiness” to receive the sacrament. 

Some sought to underscore that every Catholic is a sinner, and that, as Pope Francis has put it, Communion is a medicine for the sick, not a reward for the virtuous. Others tried to draw out the distinction between degrees of sin, and the different effects which they have on the souls and dispositions of Catholics. 

That debate prompted the question that bishops might actually need a document on the sacrament of penance to go along with their text on the Eucharist. 

It seems a safe bet to predict that the November document will underline the link between the two sacraments, and the necessary order in which they are received.

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Will there be communion?

Those looking for a direct statement on the question of the Eucharist and pro-abortion politicians seem unlikely to get their wish. But that doesn’t mean the document will sail easily to approval.

Media interest in June was fevered on the subject of the bishops and Biden, and the draft text will be scrutinized closely for any quotable sentence which could be seen as directed at the president. The presence, or absence, of any key paragraphs related to the subject will, no doubt, dominate press conferences in Baltimore. 

When the text comes up for debate and vote, there will again be some bishops pushing for the document to go further and be more explicit on the subject, and others arguing for even the most oblique references to be ironed out. 

The most likely outcome could prove to be another round of barbed exchanges from the floor, and polemical media coverage, before the bishops finally settle on a “compromise” text not very distant from whatever is proposed in the first place. 

If that proves to be the case, and the text is a basic reiteration of Catholic doctrine, many bishops - and ordinary Catholics for that matter - may be left asking if all the fuss, debate, and controversy was really needed, or achieved anything worthwhile.