American Catholic Bishops succumb to partisan politics in Eucharistic debate
Tthat the American Catholic bishops voted last Thursday by 168 votes to 55 to draft a document on Eucharistic integrity does not justify this column. That they did so only five months after the investiture of a faithful pro-choice Catholic as president is more noteworthy.
That they did so after being explicitly discouraged by the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the highest official in the Catholic Church for doctrinal matters – is the fundamental story.
This story is about a world church in a polarized country. It begins on January 22, 1973. As many jurists now agree, Roe vs. Wade was radical in content (sweeping aside 50 sets of state laws, some of which had been made more restrictive by voters on abortion after voting initiatives in November 1972) and poorly argued in terms of legal form. Twenty years later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg approved the outcome of the decision but regretted its scale and logic. For her pains, she was described as insufficiently pro-choice by abortion rights activists during Senate hearings for her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Between the late 1960s and the 1980s, abortion became legal in Canada and almost every country in Western Europe. Then, in terms of politics, he disappeared. (The issue has become a topic of public debate in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism and in Latin America since around 2000. In both regions, the trend is towards greater availability of legal abortions.) lawyer and former Vatican ambassador, Mary Ann Glendon argued over 30 years ago that a more communal, partly socialist and partly Catholic sensibility in Italy, West Germany and elsewhere has resulted in the legalization of abortion around the same time as in the United States, but with significant restrictions on abortions. after the first trimester and significantly more financial assistance for pregnant women. In Italy, the issue of abortion disappeared from public life after a public referendum in 1981. Two competing proposals, one to make abortion illegal and the other to remove almost all restrictions on the procedure, were rejected.
What sets the United States apart is the integration of the abortion issue into what has become the most partisan political culture in the developed world. In 1973, it was difficult to identify one political party as “pro-life” and another as “pro-choice”. Many Democrats, including Catholic Democrats like young Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, were in favor of restrictions on abortion. Many, perhaps most, Republicans did not. American Catholic bishops were united in their opposition to legal abortion in the 1970s, but did not deny the Eucharist to pro-choice politicians.
What changed? Advocates of choice within the Democratic Party have become increasingly intolerant of any middle ground, declaring access to abortion a basic human right as early as 1984. The intensity of this pressure has increased over the past two years. During the 2020 campaign, party activists successfully pressured all Democratic presidential candidates, including Joseph Biden, to drop opposition to public funding for abortions.
Republican Party activists have come to view the attacks on legal abortion as a gratuitous way to mobilize conservative Catholics and Evangelicals. (These loans will expire if the United States Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade next year.) The extent to which many pro-life leaders would compromise the principles of political goals has become painfully clear over the past four years. A few Catholics worshiped former President Donald Trump, vocally pro-choice early in his career, and hardly an advocate of traditional family values. Many more scruples abandoned on the president for the price of conservative federal judicial appointments.
Within Catholicism, the emphasis John Paul II placed on the issue of abortion during the 25 years of his papacy was extraordinary. A generation of American Catholic bishops, priests and intellectuals was inspired by a pope who repeatedly opposed a “culture of life” to a “culture of death”. The register was prophetic, not pragmatic. In the 2004 presidential election, remarkably, some of the country’s most radical bishops and priests harassed the still practicing Catholic Senator John Kerry during the election campaign, claiming that Kerry was unworthy of receiving the Eucharist. . Abortion has become the “predominant” concern.
Conference ardent Archbishop of Denver Samuel Aquila now believes Catholics do not want to confront President Biden by trading eternal life for the pedestrian goods of “civility” and “commitment.” Focusing too much on individual conscience, Aquila tells us with a straight face, is the sort of thing that led to the crimes committed by the leaders of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. (A young Joseph Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, studying in a bombed out Munich after 1945, came to the opposite conclusion about consciousness.)
Pope Francis is as opposed to abortion as John Paul II, but his moral reasoning is more traditional. (The most ardent admirers of John Paul II urged obedience to the Pope, not “bureaucratic” structures such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Now they feel differently.) Opposition to the abortion starts the conversation; that does not end it. Francis avoids the term “preeminent” – again a traditional view – because all substantive issues, from economic inequality to migration to the environment to same-sex marriage require a translation from theology to politics. Last month’s futile letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to American Bishops denied that abortion and euthanasia “are the only serious issues in Catholic moral and social education.”
Whatever document the bishops approved in November, it will likely only be an aggravation for President Biden. Its bishop in Washington, DC, has already announced that he will not refuse the Eucharist to Biden. Its bishop in Wilmington, Delaware, could follow suit. Vatican officials can always disarm an episcopal conference that they accurately view as unresponsive to Roman signals. Three years ago, Pope Francis ordered the American bishops to retire. He also casually said of Catholic conservatives in the United States that he “welcomed their opposition.”
The damage is done to the bishops themselves and to the Catholic community they lead. The nation is in desperate need of credible institutions that transcend party lines. Among Catholics, twenty years of revelations about sexual abuse by clerics and the collapse of membership rates among young people – in part because they perceive the Church to be linked to conservative politics – have taken a terrible toll. tribute. Tying the Eucharist to abortion means that bishops become another group of political, not moral, actors.
Sixty Catholic House Democrats issued a letter against the bishops’ vote last week. It is not a theologically sophisticated text. It would have been better, if possible, to include Catholic Republicans. But it raised a crucial point: Catholic politicians can apparently support the death penalty, place migrants in cages, reject climate change, and deny the legality of the 2020 presidential election without anyone caring about ‘l ‘Eucharistic integrity ”. Only support for legal abortion activates the doctrinal committee of bishops.
Damage is also being done to the world church and the international community. Just as the United States needs institutions that bridge partisan divisions, the world needs institutions larger than the nation-state. Catholicism remains the largest, most multicultural and most multilingual institution in the world. Holding together an organization of 1.2 billion members is no easy task, and over the past two years Pope Francis has shifted between German priests eager to bless same-sex couples, Chinese bishops concerned with the processes of episcopal appointment in an authoritarian and Amazonian state. bishops demanding a married male clergy. (Amazonian Catholics without a priest for months plead for the same Eucharist some conservative bishops would limit.)
Pro-choice Catholic politicians exist almost everywhere. Yet it is only in the United States that (some) bishops feel compelled to deny them the Eucharist. Imagine an alternate universe: where the bishops enthusiastically welcome and work with the second Catholic president, a man unabashedly over his faith and someone whose conduct in his personal and professional life has been exemplary. They might see this moment as a wonderful opportunity. They might even be able to change the president’s mind.
Bishops enslaved to a moral vision that confuses (a type of) theology and politics cannot seize the opportunity. The resulting inconsistency will be far more detrimental to “Eucharistic integrity” than the actions of a single politician.
When President Biden visits Rome this fall, he could receive Communion from Pope Francis himself. If he goes to Montreal, no problem of communion there. Ditto with Santiago, Warsaw, Paris, Hong Kong, Kampala, Melbourne or Moscow.
Stay away from Denver.
John T. McGreevy is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. His Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis will be released in 2022 by WW Norton.