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Understanding the Eucharistic coherence controversy in the United States

Benjamin Boivin

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Photo by Z I on Unsplash
In recent months, a new buzzword started floating around in American Catholic conversation, spilling over into mainstream media and causing a great deal of controversy, and that is Eucharistic coherence.
At first glance, the conversation appears to stem from a fairly uncommon collision between state and Church affairs, revolving around the election of the second Catholic President of the United States, Joe Biden, although the roots of a renewed reflection on the Eucharist in the American context run deeper than that.
Let's start off by making sense – as much as we can – of the social and political context.
 
A man and his times
Joe Biden was 17 years old when JFK – the first ever Catholic President, also of Irish descent – was elected in 1960; 20 years old when Vatican II opened in 1962; 25 years old when Humanae Vitae was promulgated in 1968; and well into a successful career as a politician when John Paul II became pope in 1978. The generation of American Catholics to which he belongs is in many ways different from that of younger American Catholics.
Catholics of Biden’s generation often were part of ethnic groups who faced marginalization: Irish, Italian, Polish, French Canadians, etc. Their natural home was in the Democratic Party, which at the time was perceived by many as being most reflective of Catholic social teaching, with its progressive economic ideals and fight for civil rights, at the federal level at least.
When Biden entered federal politics as a junior Senator from Delaware in 1973, the landmark Supreme Court ruling on the legality of abortion, Roe v. Wade, was just days away from being decided. This particular decision eventually became a major point of disagreement in American society, leading to an era of culture wars opposing those in favour of a traditional understanding of marriage, family, sexuality, but also religion and its relationship with politics, against proponents of a progressive understanding of liberalism.
For a good long while, these culture wars opposed members of the respective parties just as much as the parties themselves. There were pro-life and pro-choice Democrats as well as pro-life and pro-choice Republicans. However, influenced by a slow-moving but intensifying process of political and social polarization, both parties became increasingly tied to either one of these positions.
 
A polarized society and a torn Church
As a result, Americans who wanted to vote for either one of the mainstream, big-tent political parties had to choose between an economically and socially conservative party and an economically and socially liberal party, leaving American Catholics with two often unappealing options.
That is because, as we know, Catholic social teaching, a tradition which, in its modern form, dates back to Pope Leo XIII, rejects in many regards the type of economics which are usually described as conservative in today's America, at least up to a point. The Catholic Church has not gotten involved in particular political and economic discussions about the ways in which to implement the general principles she puts forward, but the kind of disdain for the poor that we have noticed through recent decades from elements of the American right clearly contradicts the social instincts of many Catholics.
On the other hand, the clear, definitive, and authoritative teachings of the Church on issues like abortion, marriage, and sexuality, for example, but also euthanasia and general notions of bioethics, have often been described in our polarized envrionment as conservative. Most prominent progressive or liberal leading figures in the country have associated themselves with social and political struggles against these norms which, for the most part, are not in fact rooted in religious belief as much as they are reflective of the Catholic Church's continuous attachment to a realist moral philosophy, which, put simply, means that the moral law we uphold embraces our nature and that adherence to it brings happiness.
In these culture wars, Catholics have often been stuck between a rock and a hard place. As the pressure to conform to a polarized political environment kept increasing, many were left with a binary choice: either they had to put aside economic principles of Catholic social teaching as if they were some sort of optional add-on and sided with the conservatives, or they took the liberals’ side on hot-button issues in order to pursue their understanding of social justice.
 
Abortion and the culture wars
This is obviously a very schematic portrayal of the situation, but in so many ways, this dichotomy also defined a new division within the Church between what became known as “liberal Catholics” and “conservative Catholics” – an unnecessary political schism which tore apart the unity of Church teaching on issues concerning the common good in a very disruptive way. Nevertheless, it has defined American Catholicism for decades  – until recent events shuffled the deck.
Joe Biden, a progressive-leaning Irish Catholic from Delaware, chose his side, like so many others. A moderate at heart, he strived throughout his career to maintain a triangulating position on so-called complex issues such as abortion. In the seventies, he was personally opposed to abortion and politically favourable to certain restrictions. Nowadays, in the evening of his political life, Biden's stance on abortion is reflective of the mainstream of today's progressivism: he is clearly and unequivocally in favour of the legality, availability, and affordability of abortion, and leads his administration accordingly.
Obviously, this contrasts with the insistence the Catholic Church has put on denouncing abortion and advocating for its abolition. Abortion has been described as a moral issue of very high importance by every pope who has been asked the question, ever since it’s been considered a matter for debate. Catholics, according to Church teaching, have a moral obligation to approach this issue, when exercising their right to vote, with a high level of moral gravity.
According to a 2004 memorandum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed by its prefect – at the time Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI shortly afterwards – a person may vote for a candidate who advocates the pro-choice position, with a spirit of proportions, despite the said candidate's position, but never because of this position. In the same spirit, a given political actor who's a Catholic may elect not to pursue a political struggle against abortion for prudential reasons in certain circumstances but cannot, by his actions, facilitate access to abortion without participating in an instrinsically evil action.
The vitality of the abortion debate in American society and politics has become somewhat specific to the American context. In other countries, like Canada and much of Western Europe, the reality is that there is very little political inclination for change on this issue, at least for the moment. As such, American politicians who profess a Catholic faith find themselves under a very specific set of moral and political circumstances that would be unthinkable elsewhere nowadays.
 
Rising tensions in the aftermath
The fact that a sitting Catholic President (and we could also note, a sitting Catholic Speaker of the House) so forcefully opposes the pro-life agenda in such times has led to tensions across the Catholic Church in the United States. Some perceive Biden as a moderate figure who has helped the country heal and move past a remarkably controversial and – they would say – dangerous presidency. Biden's economic and environmental agenda would also be described by many as more in line with notions of social solidarity than that of his predecessor.
However, others believe that a Catholic contradicting the highest authority of the Church on such a major issue is cause for scandal. After all, Biden does not merely tolerate abortion as an unavoidable reality but has been a steady, if cautious, advocate for the pro-choice movement through the years. This, they argue, leaves Biden in a state of grave, public, and stubborn sin, and people in his situation should not be allowed to receive communion, because they are not in fact in communion with the Church on a clearly and definitively settled moral matter.
The whole argument for this position is based on canon law, specifically Canon 915, which states: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” According to the CDF memorandum cited above, politicians who actively advocate in favour of abortion or euthanasia should not be allowed by their pastor to receive communion as long as they find themselves in this objective situation of sin. This position has been upheld by the USCCB ever since.
Certain priests and bishops, however, believe that any decision to single out President Biden and deny him Holy Communion would be politically motivated. They believe that such a decision would have the effect of politicizing the Eucharist in a way that is divisive and, as such, contrary to the notion of communion itself.
 
A Church caught in the net
Intense rhetoric in the world of American Catholic media stemmed from these debates, and this is the context in which the USCCB elected, after a vote earlier in the summer, to approve the drafting of a document on the Eucharist, hoping to meditate and reflect on the Eucharist and its centrality in the life of the Church as well as the implications of Eucharistic communion for the Church and the faithful in a holistic fashion, hence the notion of Eucharistic coherence.
Many noted that the particular political context surrounding this process has obscured the fullness of the intentions of the bishops, for whom a variety of other reasons – such as a failing understanding and belief in the mystery of the Eucharist amongst the American Catholic population – called for the creation of such a document in the first place.
As such, reflections about the centrality of the Eucharist to Catholics are in no way limited to the particular controversy surrounding President Biden's singular situation. Far from it. In fact, the document should be understood as a continuation of previous teaching on the topic, such as Pope Saint John Paul II's 2003 encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, and Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI's post-synodal apostolic exhortation from 2007.
 
Hopes for a Eucharistic renewal 
Before the USCCB Fall General Assembly, which is taking place this week, a draft, which mentions neither Biden nor abortion specifically, became known to the public, restating general theological considerations about the sacrament.
From what we can tell from this draft, it would appear that most bishops feel the priority should be given to evangelizing and providing better teachings about the wonders of the Eucharist in the context of a secularized society, where many Catholics don't understand or believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, for example, and in consideration of the effects of the pandemic on Church attendance and embodied Eucharistic communities across the country.
In this sense, it seems that the USCCB – or at least those bishops responsible for the drafting of the document – prefer not to limit the conversation about the Eucharist as ''a mystery to be believed, celebrated and lived'' (Sacramentum Caritatis, 2007) to the particulars of a specific political controversy. At the same time, it has shown a consistent willingness to reiterate general principles of worthiness to receive communion as an element within a broader understanding of the sacrament, with its different aspects.
This is reflective of the actual organizing principle of the Church, where leadership is not national, but rather diocesean. As much as some within the American Church might hope to see the USCCB make a statement one way or the other on whether pro-choice politicians should be denied communion, in the end, the USCCB has no particular authority on the issue; only relevant bishops do, within their jurisdiction and in compliance with canon law.
It is very possible that both those who wish for the USCCB to publicly and unequivocally condemn President Biden for his pro-choice politics and those who tend to reject the attentive application of principles of worthiness to public figures will be disappointed. There is no room in the Church for the particular divisions of the American party system, but there is most certainly room in American society – as in all societies – for the kind of truth-based unity that only the Church can fully provide.


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