Last week’s USCCB session saw the nation’s bishops divided in a fractious discussion over — of all topics — Christian unity.
The conversation, ironically, served mostly to highlight disagreement among the bishops over what ecclesial unity really is, and what it takes to achieve it.
During that debate, which centered on whether to draft a teaching document on the Eucharist, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., made clear his perception of the stakes: “Either we pursue a path of strengthening unity among ourselves, or settle for creating a document that will not bring unity but may very well further damage it.”
The cardinal’s argument was not convincing enough. Nearly 75% of the U.S. bishops voted to create the document.
According to the text’s drafters, it will reiterate doctrine on worthy reception of the Eucharist which has already articulated by the bishops in their own 2006 document and in by Pope Francis and the Latin American Bishops in their 2007 Aparecida document, which many Vatican watchers have pointed to as the pope’s “vision...of how you evangelize a world in flux.”
As many as a quarter of U.S. bishops, including several cardinals who have positioned themselves as interpreters of Pope Francis, voted against the document, possibly agreeing with Gregory’s assertion that the document will cause division.
Clear to most observers is politics. Even as institutional religion wanes, Americans with increasing frequency treat politics with the zeal previously reserved for faith. Any appearance that the bishops’ conference could be taking sides against the Democrats just feeds passions already burning hot.
But the bishops seem split over what Christian unity really is, and divided by conflicting visions of how to evangelize an increasingly post-Christian culture.
Among the bishops speaking last week against drafting a document, there was often a suggested - and sometimes made explicit - vision of maintaining ecclesial unity by remaining aloof about the aspects of the Church’s sexual and medical morality which are most often expected to present stumbling blocks to non-practicing Catholics.
That tactic has, in one form or another, been deployed by some leaders of the Church in the United States for some time.
But the debate over the Eucharistic document might demonstrate the risk of the “detente” approach to episcopal leadership: That it will not prove enough to accommodate cultural Catholics who reject aspects of the Church’s sexual and medical morality, even while it alienates more fervently practicing Catholics who expect clear teaching from their bishops. Trying to keep the peace, as it were, may lead to the loss of respect on both sides of the Catholic cultural divide.
The approach has been a successful means of maintaining visible communion with Catholics who remain attached to some aspects of Catholic devotional and social practice — Grandma’s rosary or her statue of Our Lady, the annual parish golf fundraiser, going to church as a family on Christmas — but who get angry when the Church speaks about contraception or says that Junior’s second marriage isn’t valid.
Indeed, the unity-through-silence tactic appeared to serve bishops well in the waning days of America’s cultural Catholicism. Many Catholics of Joe Biden’s generation wanted to consider themselves members in good standing of the Church well after they had distanced themselves from its doctrine — especially after the 1968 promulgation of Humanae Vitae. They easily found clerics, and even bishops, willing to soft-pedal controversial issues as a kind of compromise with a changing social ethos.
Amid the uncertainty that followed the Sexual Revolution, overlapping as it did with the turmoil in the Church following Vatican II, many such Catholics remained convinced that the Church would evolve on various moral issues if given time. It mostly hasn’t.
Instead, a culture has developed in some corridors of the Church in which such things simply go unspoken, such that it might be possible for an actually practicing Catholic to go a lifetime without ever really hearing explained the Church’s teaching on any number of issues that contravene contemporary cultural ethics.
But the compromise has become less viable with the passing decades. Catholic moral doctrine will not reverse itself in order to keep up with the times. And secular morality has come to demand not just silence but ever-more active ally-ship on what it considers matters of justice: easy access to contraception and abortion, recognition and celebration of same-sex marriage and of sexual diversity, etc. The number and breadth of such demands is likely to increase.
During the pontificate of Pope Francis, the advocates of this approach to unity have enthusiastically adopted the terminology of “accompaniment.” But if their approach lacks the missionary element of Pope Francis’ agenda, it might better be described as“accommodation.”
Accompaniment lacking a missionary orientation toward conversion can devolve easily into what papal nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre warned the USCCB against in his introductory remarks last week: “religion a la carte”.
Quoting Pope Francis, Pierre said, “This is what I believe creates in the end the ‘religion a la carte.’ I believe that one has to recover the religious act as a movement towards an encounter with Jesus Christ.”
But it is not just a generational shift among cultural Catholics which has made the “detente approach” to maintaining Christian unity increasingly unsuccessful. Sitting in pews alongside the group of Catholics who identify more readily with the sexual and medical morality of mainstream American culture while maintaining a Catholic identity, there is another group of Catholics, who identify themselves more readily with a conscious choice to embrace Catholic doctrine as well as practice.
Seeing themselves as holding to the faith in opposition to an increasingly hostile culture, these Catholics say they want priests and bishops who vigorously teach the doctrines and morals of the Catholic Church.
Such Catholics also say the bishops of the unity camp seem to take them for granted or see them as an inconvenience.
Some say they have the feeling of being seen themselves as an obstacle to unity: If unity is to be achieved by not talking too much about controversial aspects of the faith, then Catholics who are demanding clearer teaching and practice are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Seeing themselves as besieged by the culture and abandoned by prominent bishops, such Catholics have become alienated from the hierarchy and from their parishes, and begun instead to take in the preaching and community on offer from the (at times dubious) online Catholic authorities of Twitter and YouTube.
That phenomenon is itself a threat to Church unity, and can be bad for Catholics who find themselves drawn into a vortex of efforts to prove themselves with ever more strident gestures of opposition to the mainstream culture. That spirit, too, can become an obstacle to the Church’s missionary duty to all peoples. Moreover, it is centered on a message of suspicion and intransigence toward bishops: in short, it encourages Catholics disappointed in their bishops to entrench themselves in a disposition of opposition.
The Eucharistic document debate demonstrates that attempts at unity through silence have become a particularly dangerous strategy. It fails to retain cultural Catholics who actively assent to beliefs antithetical to Catholic teaching, and it also alienates those for whom doctrinal assent is a central aspect of their Catholic identity.
As the bishops develop and debate their teaching document on the Eucharist, they will need to face the divisions among them on how to teach and what it means to maintain Church unity. As the pope articulated through his nuncio, the answer will need to include some way to lead people to an encounter with Jesus Christ.