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The US bishops’ statement: an invitation to disobedience

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 18, 2021

After voting almost unanimously to approve a long-awaited statement on the Eucharist yesterday, the members of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gave themselves a hearty round of applause. I wonder if they noticed that not many other Catholics are clapping.

What was it that prompted the bishops’ applause? Were they saluting each other for their courageous witness? No; this was not a courageous document. Were they congratulating themselves for the prudence that allowed them to avoid a contentious debate? Not likely; they have been sniping at each other for more than a year on this topic, and the dispute will undoubtedly continue. Sometimes a healthy open debate is needed to clear the air. Or were our bishops simply clapping with relief that, once again, their conference had managed to navigate a tricky passage without capsizing completely?

The statement that the USCCB endorsed is not a bad document in itself. It might even be considered a good document, if it were issued in a vacuum. But the bishops are not living in a vacuum. Rather, they are apparently living in an environment like that of an early-model submarine. The only voices they hear are those of their fellow passengers; communication with the outside world is spotty, distorted by static, easy to misinterpret.

Consider the history of this statement. It was proposed last summer, originally conceived as a statement on “Eucharistic coherence.” It arose from the recognition that the nation’s most prominent Catholic layman, President Joe Biden, is flagrantly at odds with the teachings of the Church regarding the sanctity of human life. Some bishops, answering pro-life pleas, called for a clear statement that Catholic politicians who promote unrestricted legal abortion should recognize that they had cut themselves off from the communion of the faithful, and should not receive the Eucharist.

Backing away again

The public stands taken by President Biden—and other notable Catholic politicians, such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi—are no longer nuanced. Long gone is the subtlety of the late Governor Mario Cuomo, who made famous the excuse that he was “personally opposed” to abortion but could not enforce his own moral preferences. Today liberal Catholic politicians are shameless in their unstinting support for the slaughter of the innocent, their determination to force all taxpayers to subsidize the bloodshed, their drive to silence all opposition, their obsessive desire to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to burn incense before the altars of Planned Parenthood.

Time after time the American bishops have issued statements affirming their support for the pro-life cause, begging Catholic leaders to join in that struggle, warning politicians that it is gravely wrong to allow (much less to endorse) the legal acceptance of abortion. But again and again they have backed away from the calls for a clear, unambiguous declaration that the politicians who are promoting the slaughter should not present themselves for Communion.

This year’s debate was no different. As soon as the proposal was introduced for a statement on Eucharistic coherence, the familiar objections were raised: The statement should recognize that abortion is not the only moral issue; it should not single out anyone; it should challenge all Catholics to examine their consciences. And of course the USCCB followed that path, producing a statement that avoided the question that everyone had been asking. Once again the bishops played the role of Lucy Van Pelt, holding the football for the Charlie Browns of the pro-life movement. Would they make that clear statement this year? Could they? Maybe… Oh, well, maybe next year.

A clear signal from Rome

To be fair, this year the American bishops were receiving clear signals from Rome, where Pope Francis said that he had never denied anyone the Eucharist. Although the Pontiff did not directly address the American bishops’ controversy, he did hold a congenial meeting with Biden, and when Biden said that the Pope had encouraged him to continue receiving Communion, no one at the Vatican disputed that account of the conversation.

As the date of the USCCB meeting approached, the Vatican News site offered a thoroughly one-sided treatment of the American discussion, featuring an interview with Cardinal Roger Mahony, who praised a statement by Democratic legislators rationalizing their votes in favor of abortion. Why did a Vatican outlet choose to give its platform to Cardinal Mahony—not an active prelate or one who had played a prominent role in this year’s debates, but one who resigned under pressure a decade ago—if not to discourage the American hierarchy from taking a strong pro-life stand? Then when the USCCB meeting opened in Baltimore, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, told the assembly: “There is a temptation to treat the Eucharist as something to be offered to the privileged few.” Here he was warning against a position that precisely no one in the room held. But he was using the language that had been used for years to derail the cries for Eucharistic coherence.

No doubt influenced by these messages from Rome, the USCCB chose to issue a message that did not directly address the question everyone was asking. Or did it? Because sometimes silence is as good as an answer. Remember the Synod of Marriage and the Family? The key question being asked then was whether the Church would approve the reception of the Eucharist by Catholics who are divorced and remarried. The Synod meetings did not produce a definitive answer to that question. So in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis provided an answer—with a wink and a nod and a footnote. The question is still not officially resolved, and stalwart bishops can insist that Church teaching remains unchanged. But “everyone knows” which side the Vatican favors.

The challenge set before the American bishops, at this meeting in Baltimore, was clear to all. Could they agree to say, in plain words, that support for legal abortion in incompatible with reception of the Eucharist. The answer is No.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann, the chairman of the US bishops’ pro-life committee, explained why he thought a new statement was necessary:

We’ve said this before, but one of the reasons we need to say it again is because I am not sure that we’ve taken seriously as bishops our responsibility for the care of the souls of these politicians—to really enter a dialogue.

But if American bishops are still not taking that responsibility seriously today—nearly 50 years after Roe, nearly 40 years after the “seamless garment” argument arose, nearly 20 years after Theodore McCarrick scuttled a message from Cardinal Ratzinger calling for clarity—how will one more statement help?

Examination of consciences

The bishops’ statement challenges all Catholics to recognize, with awe, the unfathomable gift that is the Eucharist, to realize that none of us is worthy to receive the Body of Jesus Christ, to recognize our sinfulness, and appeal for the mercy of our Eucharistic Lord. These are all good and necessary messages, especially necessary at a time when only a minority of active Catholics accept the Church’s fundamental doctrine on the reality of the Eucharist.

But while they rightly remind us all to examine our consciences before receiving Communion, in this document the bishops do not examine their own consciences, and ask themselves how well they are fulfilling their sacred duty to protect the Sacrament from sacrilege and scandal.

Not even the American bishops (a group of men with a strong tendency to be self-satisfied) could be content with this message. Surely the faithful, pro-life laity will not be satisfied. But ultimately it is not the laity to whom the bishops must answer. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco wrote in May: “I tremble that if I do not forthrightly challenge Catholics under my pastoral care who advocate for abortion, both they and I will have to answer to God for innocent blood.”

Maybe a few bishops, spurred by this statement, will resolve to have those long-overdue private conversations with Catholic politicians who are flouting the Church’s moral teachings. But what if the politicians ignore their entreaties, and continue to boast publicly about their rejection of God’s law? The bishop might advise the wayward politician not to receive Communion. But what if that advice, too, is spurned?

In such cases (and there are many), the Code of Canon Law (915) spells out the bishop’s duty:

Those.. who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy Communion.

The American bishops, with the clear approval of the Vatican, have declined to affirm what Church law prescribes. Some bishops are prepared to do their duty, but others are not, and the USCCB as a body remains silent. Through that silence, the USCCB statement issues an invitation to disobedience. It comforts the bishops who will not enforce Canon 915. It coddles the politicians who will not protect human life. It creates a temptation for all Catholics to stifle the cries of their own troubled consciences—a temptation to say: Non serviam.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 11 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: tlewerenz7841 - Nov. 25, 2021 1:10 PM ET USA

    Hooray for stating the truth. WHY do those leaders who have received Orders refuse to step out and do their duty. They would be heroes. Perhaps they fear they may not be heroes. Sad. Pitiful. The truth will set you free. Speak, damn you! Speak!

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Nov. 20, 2021 7:02 AM ET USA

    Wasn't it St. Athanasius who said the road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops? I think he also said the supply of pavers will never be exhausted.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Nov. 20, 2021 6:27 AM ET USA

    I see cowardice in the guise of prudence. Conformity clothed in principle. Ambition masquerading as mercy. Politicians dressed up as clergymen.

  • Posted by: edlord4161 - Nov. 20, 2021 1:02 AM ET USA

    Words without meaning as the enemy of Christ & his Church, and that includes Biden, Pelosi & the alleged “Catholics” whose hands are stained with the blood of 60 million lives, openly mock those who have fought to end this monumental evil. The Bishops failed those who fight for the faith & sided with “cultural catholics” who only wave their rosaries to gain votes. Bishops when you meet Our Saviour will you read Him the text of your treatise or will He show you the results of your inaction?

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Nov. 19, 2021 6:49 PM ET USA

    The faithful will benefit more from reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1322-1419, than by reading the bishop's document. I certainly will not bother to read it. Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosy and and many other "devout Catholic" politicians will not bother to read the document either, but will feel pleased with this document. Perhaps these politicians will reward the USCCB by increasing the amount of taxpayer's money given to Catholic Charities.

  • Posted by: St. George - Nov. 19, 2021 1:25 PM ET USA

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for your clarity and faithfulness!

  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 19, 2021 12:21 PM ET USA

    The purple and red robes the bishops and cardinals wear are not for fancy looks but to symbolize their loyalty to Christ, up to the point of willing to shed their blood for Him, His teachings, and His Church. But, so far, the bishops' foremost priority seems to be avoiding at all cost unpopularity with "Catholic" politicians and the wayward Vatican, even at the cost of blood of innocent babies. The applause they gave themselves for "resolving" their little problem at hand was most disgraceful.

  • Posted by: Cory - Nov. 19, 2021 7:30 AM ET USA

    If the hierarchy can mandate vaccines produced using cells from babies dissected live to get these cells, then it's ridiculous that they should rant and rave about abortion. let's face it, the Church stance against abortion is really just for show. The faithful laity on the other hand put their money where their mouths are.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Nov. 19, 2021 12:14 AM ET USA

    Even among the few bishops who rightly voted No on this statement, there was a notable lack of fire when speaking to the assembly. If the Real Presence is a true doctrine, then to leave wide open the door to its profanation should utterly horrify any good bishop, shouldn’t it? Yet the Eucharist’s defenders are so meek, so halting, so careful not to offend their fellows.

  • Posted by: winnie - Nov. 18, 2021 1:04 PM ET USA

    Once again rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 18, 2021 12:48 PM ET USA

    _Non serviam_ applies not only in this case, but in too many other cases as well: adultery, homosexual activity, heterosexual activity outside of Matrimony, contraception, in vitro fertilization, euthanasia, vaccination under an impossible threat of mortal sin by the papacy, "the logic of the Gospel" which is said to admit EVERYONE to the beatific vision regardless of state of habitual grace, greater focus on the conditions of poverty and exclusion than on the root causes, canceling of 1962 Mass