On Friday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced plans to draft a statement about the Eucharist, a practice at the heart of Roman Catholic worship also called “communion.” Corporate media and Catholic-identifying Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California, quickly spun the decision as a divisive attack on Joe Biden, but in doing so proved both the need for such a teaching document and that Catholic leaders have gravely failed to catechize generations of Catholics.
“Targeting Biden, Catholic Bishops Advance Controversial Communion Plan,” The New York Times headlined its “reporting” on last week’s announcement, claiming “[t]he decision was aimed at the nation’s second Catholic president.” Soon after, Lieu took to Twitter to dare the bishops to deny him communion based on his anti-Catholic beliefs, such as supporting abortion and same-sex relationship licensing.
By day’s end, 60 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives had signed a “Statement of Principles,” in which they declared themselves Catholics who support “a woman’s safe and legal access to abortion.” These same lawmakers then chastised the bishops for supposedly “weaponizing the Eucharist,” before urging them “to not move forward and deny this most holy of all sacraments. . . over one issue.”
This Is About Theology, Not Politics
But the USCCB’s vote directing its Committee on Doctrine to draft a document on the Eucharist for consideration at the organization’s fall general assembly in Baltimore won’t “deny” anyone communion. It will seek, instead, to educate American Catholics about the meaning of the Holy Eucharist.
As an outline of the proposal presented to the USCCB last week highlighted, the Committee on Doctrine intends the teaching document to include three focuses on the Eucharist, as “A Mystery to be Believed,” “A Mystery to be Celebrated,” and “A Mystery to be Lived.” Such a teaching document fits well the USCCB’s “Eucharistic revival” project also discussed at Friday’s conference. That seeks to “light a fire” in the church and increase “devotion, love, and belief in the Eucharist.”
With recent polling showing that nearly 70 percent of American Catholics lack a basic understanding of the Holy Eucharist—that during the consecration the bread and wine transubstantiate, or change form, into the actual body and blood of Christ—the USCCB’s focus on the Eucharist is obviously much needed. But the response of House Democrats shows the catechetical needs extend much beyond Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist.
Get Out Your Catechisms
Generations of American Catholics require a primer on the sins of sacrilege and scandal, on the distinction between intrinsic evil and matters of prudential judgment, and on the duty of faithful Catholics to religious submission.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “sacrilege consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions.” And sacrilege “is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist, for in this sacrament the true Body of Christ is made substantially present for us.” Relatedly, Canon 916 of the Code of Canon Law makes clear that “a person who is conscious of grave sin is not to . . . receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess.”
Notwithstanding the clear teaching of the Catholic Church that those in the state of mortal sin are not to receive communion—and in fact commit the additional grave sin of sacrilege by doing so—the Democratic House members’ “Statement of Principles” ignores these dictates. Instead, they stress Pope Francis’s words that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Indeed, the Holy Eucharist rewards the worthy recipient with grace—a spiritual nourishment that strengthens resolve and brings the communicant closer to Christ. But no such grace flows to those in the state of mortal sin. In that case, rather, the sacrilege widens the chasm separating a person from Christ.
Some Sins Are Worse than Others
That Statement of Principles also establishes the signatories’ ignorance—real or feigned—of the difference between intrinsic evil and prudential judgments. “Intrinsically evil acts are inherently immoral; therefore, nothing can cause an intrinsically evil act to become moral. Such an act is, in and of itself, evil. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral.” Abortion and euthanasia, among other things, are intrinsically evil, and as Pope John Paul II explained in Evangelium Vitae, legislators intentionally supporting civil laws that authorize abortion or euthanasia formally cooperate in those intrinsically evil acts.
Conversely, issues of economics, immigration, stewardship of natural resources, and many other legislative-policy decisions involve lawmakers’ prudential judgments to assess the proper means to achieve a licit end. Yet to defend their support of the intrinsically evil in their Statement of Principles, the Democratic lawmakers point to Republicans’ prudential judgments with which they disagree.
Catholics uneducated on the distinction between intrinsic evil and prudential judgments will of course see a focus on abortion (or homosexual acts or euthanasia), but not immigration or global warming, as contradictory and in turn the “weaponization of the Eucharist.” But a properly catechized and faithful Catholic will understand and accept the distinction.
Failing In Their Primary Duty to Feed the Sheep
Therein lies the next catechistic failure of the modern church: failing to educate Catholics on their duty of religious submission. The faithful owe a duty to accept and adhere to church teachings on faith and morals, and “since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procedure abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.”
Thus, faithful Catholics, including lawmakers, must make a submission of will to the church’s teaching on abortion. Faithful Catholics cannot seek refuge in claims of “conscience,” as Democratic lawmakers attempted when declaring in their Statement of Principles that “we seek the Church’s guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience.”
Further, in making this public profession, and more so in Lieu’s tweet publicly “daring” the bishops to deny him communion, these Democratic lawmakers have caused scandal. This scandal implicates not merely the individual’s decision to present himself for communion in contravention of church teaching, but the priest or extraordinary minister’s obligation to safeguard the Holy Eucharist, because “public figures who identify as ‘Catholic’ give scandal to the faithful when receiving Communion by creating the impression that the moral laws of the Church are optional.”
Yet because the sin of scandal also receives scant attention in modern Catholicism, Americans, including those who see themselves as Catholic, view denying communion to politicians as divisive, as opposed to obligatory for the minister of the Eucharist.
The Bishops Need to Take Responsibility
The USCCB could do much to educate Americans on these fundamentals of faith in the teaching document on the eucharist under draft. But the bishops must also confront the reality that ignorance is one thing, while ignoring the church’s authority is another. Also, the bishops themselves cause scandal by refusing to exercise their authority when high-profile individuals publicly and obstinately announce their grave sin, then march down the aisle to profane our Lord.
Following Friday’s announcement, the focus understandably rested on Biden, whose spokesperson, just days before Biden restarted federal funding for abortion providers abroad, reminded America that Biden “is a devout Catholic.” But the issue extends much beyond Biden to other prominent individuals, including especially now the congressional representatives who have proclaimed themselves incorrigible.
Even now, though, it seems unlikely that two-thirds of the American bishops would vote to approve any document that teaches of the need, in rare and extraordinary circumstances, to exclude communicants from the Holy Eucharist. Without that super-majority, the status quo will remain—and the scandal will grow deeper.