What you need to know: 'Eucharistic consistency' fallout, 'Catholic awkward,' and episcopal unity

The Tuesday Pillar Post

Hey everybody,

Today is the feast of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, the martyred bishop of Rochester. 

While More is well-known — having become the subject of a movie with six Academy Awards, after all — Fisher’s story is also worth knowing. 

The bishop was executed June 22nd, 1535, on charges of treason which stemmed from his refusal to recognize King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church in England, and his eventual private admission that he did not believe Henry to hold that position.

The bishop had, by that point, spent more than a year imprisoned in the Tower of London, unable to see a confessor and had been stripped of his office and his property. 

He was in May 1535 created a cardinal, a move Pope Paul III hoped might secure for Fisher better treatment — to no avail. Henry VII famously quipped when Fisher became a cardinal that “the pope can send the hat, but there will be no head to put it on.”

It was not an empty threat.

In June, Fisher was tried by a commission and sentenced to be drawn and quartered. By some accounts, Fisher was scheduled to die on June 24 — the feast of his namesake, St. John the Baptist. When English officials began to fear that executing Fisher on John the Baptist’s feast day would provoke an uprising of London Catholics, the bishop was instead beheaded on June 22.  

More would be executed two weeks later, on July 6.

St. John Fisher, pray for us.

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The News

Catholic news over the weekend focused on the USCCB’s 168-55 vote Friday to draft a document on the Eucharist that will be voted upon — under much scrutiny, no doubt — in November.

Believe it or not, the U.S. bishops’ conference did other things on Friday too. Here’s a round-up of what else went on at Day 3 of the USCCB’s spring virtual assembly, including talk about the institution of a USCCB-sponsored “catechetical institute,” and a presentation from Bishop Andrew Cozzens on the bishops’ “Eucharistic revival” project. Read about them here.

As you already know, the NY Times and CNN did not focus their recaps of the bishops’ meeting on the catechetical institute project. It came as no surprise that, immediately after voting totals were announced on Friday, there was wall-to-wall media coverage of the bishops’ conference meeting, most of it asserting that the U.S. bishops had made a historic move to censure Biden, and much of it framing that move as a USCCB repudiation of the pope. 

Readers of The Pillar know how fantastical those accounts really are, and how little connected they are to the more prosaic reality that, while the bishops had Biden in mind, and some of them mentioned him in proceedings, the eventual text will not mention Biden, and its section on “Eucharistic coherence” will probably be a very elementary primer on what the bishops and the Church have already said.

Nevertheless, the reports whipped up a maelstrom over the weekend, especially after 60 pro-choice House Democrats released a statement saying they were, to bastardize a saying of St. Thomas More, God’s good servants, but servants of their own consciences first. 

Things got even more heated when a California congressman, a Catholic living in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles tweeted that despite his support for legal protection of abortion and same-sex marriage, he “dared” the Church — he mentioned the USCCB specifically, but we won’t fault him for failing to understand ecclesiological jurisdiction — to deny him Holy Communion.

On Saturday, I wrote that if the congressman shows up at Mass, cameras in tow, eager to continue political hay-making over his understanding of the USCCB vote, it would become a problem for Archbishop Jose Gomez — to say nothing of the poor priest who found his parish being used for a political demonstration — and that the archbishop might have to weigh in before the congressman made a demonstration of the Eucharist, and encouraged other politicians to do the same. 

As it happens, the congressman seems, at least for the moment, to have moved on; there is no evidence he actually went to Mass on Sunday, and his office has not replied to questions about the matter.

Gomez, for his part, released a statement through the USCCB on Monday which seemed intent on addressing the media controversy, though without making any actual reference to it. 

The archbishop said that “As bishops, our desire is to deepen our people’s awareness of this great mystery of faith, and to awaken their amazement at this divine gift, in which we have communion with the living God. That is our pastoral purpose in writing this document.” You can read that statement here

Ed had a novel insight over the weekend about what document might be even more needed than one on Eucharistic coherence:

During the debate at the USCCB meeting this week, much was made of the number (a reported majority) of Catholics who do not believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is indeed a catechetical crisis in need of attention. But, if the last 24 hours are any indication, there is an equal crisis of faith among American Catholics about the very nature, or even existence, of sin as a spiritual reality. And given the rhetoric of some bishops, that confusion is understandable.

Within the context of the conference’s discussion on Eucharistic coherence, the real problem, it seems, is not the number of pro-abortion politicians receiving Communion. It is the number of Catholics who don’t seem to acknowledge there’s actually such a thing as the state of grave sin, still less a terrible spiritual harm attached to it. 

How to address this crisis may now become the elephant in the conference room at future USCCB meetings. One possible way forward, though, seems to suggest itself.

The bishops may find their efforts to revive belief in, and devotion to, the Eucharist prove a non-starter, unless Catholics can first be convinced why they need its salvific power. While a teaching document on the Eucharist is now being drafted, the bishops may find they need to first issue a similar document on sin and the sacrament of penance.

Read the whole thing. It’s quite good.

And now for something completely different, and for some ‘Catholic awkward’

If you’ve read your fill on the Eucharistic coherence document — and believe me, we’ve written our fill — we have some very interesting things for you on a completely different set of topics.

First, a quartet of Americans, including layman Bill Daniel — among them are friends of The Pillar —  were appointed judges or expert advisors to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the supreme court of canon law.

What does the Apostolic Signature actually do? We’re glad you asked, because here’s a little explainer

Also, we’re sure this has happened to you. You’re praying some Catholic prayer when suddenly you realize you’re not actually sure what the words mean. Or, you’re praying with a friend, and then you say “vale of tears,” while she says “valley of tears.”— Awkward, no? 

To help you out, The Pillar brings you answers to the questions you never even knew you had about some of Catholicism’s most routine prayers. This is a fun piece, and I hope it’s useful to you. Check it out.

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Unity and collegiality?

There was amid the bishops’ meeting last week a great deal of talk about the importance of fostering episcopal unity, or at least the appearance of unity — especially about the perception among some bishops that drafting a statement on the Eucharist might sever fraternal collegiality among the Church’s U.S. leaders. 

It is indeed true that the last six months have been characterized by a number of public disagreements among the bishops — disagreements in which a cardinal lamented “internal institutional failures” of the bishops’ conference when it didn’t do what he wanted it to do, in which cardinals are reported to have sought Vatican intervention into episcopal conference proceedings on at least two occasions, in which bishops wrote dueling essays, both public and private, over Eucharistic coherence, and in which a group of bishops organized a letter urging the USCCB president to circumvent conference procedural rules to remove the Eucharistic discussion from the June meeting’s agenda — a letter that, it turns out, listed at least one bishop as a signatory who never agreed to sign, and others as signatories who insisted their names be taken off.

None of that came up during the meeting. In fact, some bishops have taken pains to emphasize that everything is fine and disagreements were minimal — a kind of paternalistic clericalism which insists that what’s plain to see isn’t real, and mommy and daddy aren’t actually fighting at all.

From my own point of view, public disagreement among bishops doesn’t need to be a source of scandal in the Church. It can be the sign of a healthy institutional culture when people feel free to engage rationally and respectfully about even strongly held disagreements — and it could actually help to restore trust in the Church if practicing Catholics saw that bishops were forthright and candid about their manifestly obvious disagreements, while proceeding through them with the presumption of Christian brotherhood. Some, but not all, of the disagreements over the past six months have even had that character.

But as a stubborn and opinionated person, married happily for 15 years to a similarly stubborn and opinionated person, I’ve learned that while “fighting it out” can be healthy, there need to be some ground rules — some basic expectations of what it means to fight fair. And finding consensus on those ground rules means talking out our own worst tendencies to fight unfairly, and then coming to some agreement about how to do things better. During their meeting last week, the bishops did not get there. 

It isn’t enough for bishops to give lip service to unity and respect amid disagreement. There are some bruised egos and festering resentments among our episcopate, and if there isn’t some form of reconciliation, along with practical commitment to doing things better, that won’t just go away.

The bishops will continue to have serious and substantial disagreements, but they’re no closer to working out together just how they’ll work through them — which means they’ll continue to do things their interlocutors regard as unfair, resentments will continue to build, and disunity will grow even more entrenched.

Closing thoughts

— I have a little problem. Over the past few days, a number of people have suggested to me that The Pillar should write about one thing or another, and in several cases I said “I’ll try to treat that in my newsletter.” I meant it, of course, but now that I sit down to actually write the blasted thing, I can’t recall what it was I offered to write about. I’m not even 40, so I think I prefer to blame a sort of post-meeting neural fatigue rather than admitting that age is catching up to me.

So if I told you I’d write about something today and I didn’t — well, I guess I’ll get to it next time!

— Three years ago this week, June 20, 2018, it was first reported that then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was accused of sexually abusing a minor, while he was an auxiliary bishop of New York.

“I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence,” McCarrick said at the time. 

The life of the Church in the United States has changed in some considerable ways over the last three years. It has been a difficult three years to be a Catholic — priests, religious, bishops, and laity I talk with all have that experience. 

It’s important to remember, I think, that three years is really a very short period of time, and that we’re really still unpacking the McCarrick fallout, not through it.

It would be a dangerous presumption to think we can put 2018 “behind us” quite yet — especially as serious institutional questions about how McCarrick happened have not yet been answered, and as victims of clerical sexual abuse and coercion still have things that all of us in the Church need to hear and understand. 

That doesn’t mean that the Church should be defined by the sins of her members. No — we are unique among human societies because we’re defined by the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us from sinfulness to sanctity, the grace of the cross to redeem us and make us new. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more  — it’s true.

We are defined by our redemption. But our redemption presupposes our fallenness, and institutional reform and renewal — for which we have long prayed — is predicated upon our repentance. 

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— Lost in the shuffle of last week was the release of a note from the Pontifical Academy for Life called “Friendship with persons with disabilities: the beginning of a new world.”

Focused on lessons and fallout of the pandemic, it’s a text worth reading for pastors, public health experts, educational leaders, and anyone who wants better to love Christ by loving people with disabilities:

We must recognize, therefore, that the negative experiences of persons with disabilities during this pandemic do not only stem from the increased vulnerability that certain such persons have of being infected and developing serious COVID-19. They also stem from society’s failure, generally, to value and include persons with disabilities when developing and implementing public health policies. In many countries, persons with disabilities and their families were not consulted on the development of these policies. This is first of all a symptom of their not being fully integrated in the community.  (ed. note: italics added).

The Christian faith teaches that vulnerability and limitation are inherent in the human condition. These can be a milieu of meaning and hope. This is what persons with disabilities can also teach us through the witness of their lives. Through his incarnation, Christ took on the limitations and  vulnerability of the human condition and associated with the poorest, the weakest, the most marginalized and excluded in society. The Suffering and Crucified One continues to live in solidarity with them during this pandemic and beyond. They are in the heart of God and central to the ministry of the entire people of God. The Church, therefore, has a mission to accompany, care and advocate for and with persons with disabilities.

Read it here.

— If you want to know even more about what we think of the USCCB meeting last week, we talk about it in depth in this week’s episode of The Pillar Podcast. Listen here, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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— We’ll continue to watch the development of the Eucharistic coherence document, but we’re also moving forward in coverage of other important topics in the life of the Church, so stay tuned. 

Thanks for your subscriptions, thanks for passing on The Pillar Post and Pillar articles to new readers, and most especially, thanks for your prayers. Let’s pray together for truth and unity in the Church. 

Please be assured of our prayers, and please keep praying for us.

Yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
Editor-in-chief
The Pillar