US Catholic bishops join the culture wars

US Catholic bishops join the culture wars
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With their overwhelming vote to begin drafting a document on “Eucharistic coherence,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has officially joined the culture wars. The phrase “Eucharistic coherence” has become a euphemism for attacking Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chair of the conference’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, denounced such prominent public figures as ones who “flaunt their Catholicity.” He particularly had in mind President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Bipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise The GOP's post-1/6 playbook is clear — and it's dangerous MORE (D-Calif.), whose Catholicism is an integral part of their personas. During the debate, Bishop Liam Cary said the quiet part out loud: “We’ve never had a situation like this where the executive is a Catholic president who is opposed to a teaching of the church.” For his part, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, leader of Pelosi’s San Francisco diocese, vociferously argued that “erring Catholic” politicians (such as Biden and Pelosi) should be excluded from receiving Holy Communion. 

The bishops’ opposition to Biden was present during the 2020 campaign and intensified by Inauguration Day. Archbishop José Gomez, president of the USCCB, issued a statement saying, “Our new president has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender,” adding that the bishops would rank abortion as a “preeminent priority.”


As the date of the June conference neared, the Vatican publicly urged a halt to debating the issue. Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, advised that it would be “misleading” to present abortion and euthanasia as “the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching.” Sixty-seven bishops heeded the Vatican’s advice and urged a postponement until the conference could meet in person. (It met via Zoom.)

Those closest to Pope FrancisPope Francis Pope calls on young people to protect environment The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Gosar censured as GOP drama heightens Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Native solar startups see business as activism MORE were especially vigorous in their opposition. Bishop Robert McElroy warned that the “weaponization” of Holy Communion “will bring tremendously destructive consequences,” noting that “the Eucharist must never be instrumentalized for a political end, no matter how important.”

But the bishops ignored such cease-and-desist warnings. Many who strongly support banning President BidenJoe BidenUS lawmakers arrive in Taiwan to meet with local officials Biden meets with Coast Guard on Thanksgiving Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE from receiving communion have previously expressed their disdain for Pope Francis. Retired Archbishop Charles Chaput is one. Back in 2013, Chaput quoted one priest saying, “The problem is that [the Holy Father] makes all of the wrong people happy, people who will never believe in the Gospel and who will continue to persecute the Church.” 

Pope Francis issued a stinging rebuke: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” While Pope Francis has appointed several U.S. bishops, the conference remains dominated by those named by his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The consequence of seeking “Eucharistic coherence” will be a smaller, more unified church. Catholic scholar George Weigel decries those so-called “cafeteria Catholics” whose “pick and choose Catholicism. . . will not survive the cultural and political tsunami that’s coming.” Their departure, Weigel hopes, will create an “All-In Catholicism” whose homogenous nature creates the exclusivity the bishops so desire.

Surveys shows a smaller Catholic church is fast becoming a reality. Gallup reports that since 1998, the percentage of Catholics who belong to a parish has fallen sharply from 76 percent to 58 percent. 

When Biden became the Democratic presidential nominee, Bishop Thomas Tobin tweeted: “Biden-Harris. First time in awhile [sic] that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad.” But such attacks are not merely directed at Biden. Rather, they represent a declaration of war on the Catholic laity. While the bishops may protest that Biden, Pelosi and other Catholic pro-choice officeholders are poised to make policy, what about those Catholics who support them? In 2020, 52 percent of Catholic voters backed Biden. Are they, too, unworthy to receive Holy Communion. 

In his letter to the bishops, Cardinal Ladaria warned that should the bishops ban pro-choice Catholic politicians from receiving communion, they must be prepared to consider extending the policy to all Catholics “rather than only one category of Catholics.” When a priest at mass says, “Happy are those who are called to His supper,” the bishops seem to suggest that the priest say instead, “Happy are those who are called to His supper and agree with us on abortion.”

There are many issues on which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops could find common cause with the Biden administration — immigration, climate change, racial equality, voting rights and addressing economic inequities, to name but a few. However, by making abortion their “preeminent priority,” the bishops have walked away from any further dialogue. In doing so, they seem to have forgotten the example set by Jesus himself.

In several Gospel passages, Jesus engages in the art of persuasion. For example, when a woman was about to be stoned to death for committing adultery (a crime still punishable by death in certain parts of the world), Jesus tells the would-be executioners, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” One-by-one they walk away as Jesus tells the woman to “leave her life of sin.” No miracle, but a powerful, persuasive moment for all involved.

The work the bishops have authorized will take until November to complete and must be approved by the Vatican. No matter what the conference produces, each individual bishop will still retain his authority to deny Holy Communion. But with their authorization, the bishops have ensured discord will reign supreme. Cardinal Wilton Gregory forecast what lies ahead: “The choice before us at this moment is 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.” That damage is done. By their action, the bishops have turned the Catholic Church into a playground for the culture wars.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled “What Happened to the Republican Party?” During the 2020 campaign, he was a co-chair of Catholics for Biden.