US Catholic bishops and the making of a fiasco

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Two weeks ago, I noted Cardinal Wilton Gregory’s prediction that the authorization given by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to draft a statement on “Eucharistic coherence” was a recipe for disaster. To paraphrase King Henry VIII’s apocryphal admonition to his many wives before consummating their marriages, the ramifications didn’t take long. Facing a swift backlash, the bishops write that they did not intend to target “any one individual or class of persons,” adding that there will be “no national policy on withholding communion from politicians. 

Such denials place the bishops’ credibility in jeopardy. During their June debate, several referred to “erring Catholics,” particularly President Biden. From the moment Biden took office, conference president José Gomez decried the “problems” the nation’s second Catholic president created with respect to his deeply-held faith and his support for abortion rights.

Yet when it came to President Trump’s rush to carry out the death penalty, things were different. From July 2020 to Jan. 2021, an unprecedented 13 federal prisoners were executed. At the 2020 National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, William Barr, Trump’s attorney general and a Catholic, received the Faithful Christian Laity award, presented to him by its president, Leonard Leo — a co-chair of The Federalist Society (a clearinghouse for Trump’s judicial appointments) and trustee at The Catholic University of America (the U.S. Catholic college founded by the bishops). Leo lauded Barr as a “truly Catholic public servant,” even as the presentation was scheduled between two death sentences.

Sr. Helen Prejean, a prominent death penalty opponent, labeled Barr’s accolade “scandalous,” while the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests dryly noted, “Executions are clearly not pro-life.” The Biden administration has temporarily suspended all federal executions pending a review. So much for Catholic coherence. 

The bishops’ contradictory statements and denials have weakened their already precarious standing. When Catholics are asked whether Joe Biden should be denied Holy Communion because of his abortion stance, 67 percent say no. While 87 percent of Catholic Democrats do not support denying the Eucharist to him, 55 percent of Catholic Republicans think Biden should be turned away. As Bishop Robert McElroy warned: “The Eucharist itself will be a tool in vicious partisan turmoil. It will be impossible to prevent its weaponization, even if everyone wants to do so.” The bishops’ call for “Eucharistic coherence” is a first-class fiasco of their own making. 

Why did this happen? One reason is the proliferation of conservative Catholic publications such as First Things and websites that include National Catholic Register and LifeSiteNews. Like the bishops, these publications make abortion their “preeminent priority.” Besides these websites, EWTN, the Catholic cable channel, has become the go-to network for conservative Catholics. Raymond Arroyo’s nightly “The World Over” program features his “papal posse” that is highly critical of Pope Francis. Arroyo praised the bishops’ anti-Biden stance, while voicing support for Donald Trump’s positions on abortion, immigration and even the death penalty.

Like many Americans in this time of polarized politics, conservative Catholics find comfort in listening to like-minded views, often to the exclusion of others. After pro-choice congressional Catholics issued a statement denouncing the bishops’ action, George Weigel wrote in First Things that while welcome to attend mass, these Catholics should remain seated during Holy Communion “until they are no longer in a gravely defective state of communion with the Church.” Weigel’s stance seems to contradict Pope Francis’s maxim that Holy Communion “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Reaching out to others is at the heart of being a good priest. From the start of his papacy, Pope Francis has admonished his clergy to “be shepherds with the smell of sheep.” For Francis, this means priests must go “out of themselves” into a world that thinks and lives differently. 

Acknowledging attacks from conservative U.S. Catholic prelates, Pope Francis has said, “It is an honor when the Americans attack me.” During his papacy, such assaults have become more frequent and without restraint. 

The result is a growing schism between the U.S. bishops and Rome. Rather than perpetuating the divide, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would do well to reconsider its actions and do more to acquire the “smell of sheep.”

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?” The views expressed here are his own and not that of The Catholic University of America. During the 2020 campaign, he was a co-chair of Catholics for Biden. 

Tags Catholic Church Catholic Church in the United States Catholic Democrats Donald Trump Eucharist denial to Catholic politicians over abortion Eucharist in the Catholic Church Joe Biden Pope Francis Traditionalist Catholicism USCCB William Barr

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