Catholic Bishops Dysfunctional and Polarized

In what many observers see as a growing episcopal polarization, the US Catholic bishops, the USCCB, in their 2021 spring meeting, voted to advance their  “Communion document.” The draft document passed by 75% of the bishops’ conference advances a push by conservative US bishops to deny President Biden communion because of his support for abortion rights.

The action was both expected and problematic. The USCCB approved on June 18, 2021 plans to draft a document addressing communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians, delivering an extraordinary rebuke to the Vatican’s attempts to slow the process and avoid attempts to adjust the church’s sacraments for partisan aims. 

The promised document marks the culmination of efforts that began in November 2020, days after the election of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the second Catholic US president, who also, like the first, John F. Kennedy, supports abortion rights. Biden has strongly asserted that he is personally opposed to abortion. US Catholic bishops appear blind to that reality.

The USCCB decision drew immediate criticism from 60 Catholic Democrats in Congress, who urged the bishops “to not move forward and deny this most holy of all sacraments” and who challenged the bishops by outlining their own commitment to “making real the basic principles that are at the heart of Catholic social teaching.” 

The US bishops are expected to vote on the forthcoming statement in November 2021, ahead of the midterm elections, giving conservatives a tool to criticize Democratic politicians throughout the campaign cycle. Abortion has long been one of the most mobilizing political forces for the religious right. That subtext was made plain as the bishops debated the topic for more than two hours on Thursday, June 17, 2021. “I can’t help but wonder if the years 2022 and 2024 might be part of the rush,” observed Bishop Robert M. Coerver of Lubbock, Texas. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Archbishop of Washington and the nation’s first African-American cardinal, has made it abundantly clear that he does not support denying communion to President Biden. 

The USCCB’s move to target the current US president, who regularly attends Mass and has spent a lifetime steeped in Catholic religious practices, is striking coming from leaders of the president’s own faith. It is particularly striking considering that a great many conservative bishops had turned a blind eye to the sexual improprieties of former President Donald J. Trump because they supported his political agenda. It reveals an American Catholicism highly politically polarized . In the 2020 US presidential election, according to AP VoteCast, 50% of US Catholics backed Donald Trump and 49% favored Joseph Biden. Interestingly, when it comes to abortion, more than half of US Catholics (56%) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

The former US President was rhetorically anti-abortion but hardly pro-life. “Certainly, we know President Trump was a deeply amoral individual whose personal and political stances flew in the face of virtually everything the Catholic Church teaches,” said Maggie Siddiqi, senior director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. In the Trumpian days, I often found Catholic episcopal support for him from bishops like Cardinal Timothy Dolan in New York, very strange and disconcerting. Well-documented allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, were repeatedly denied by Trump; but those charges did not bring any move against him from conservative Catholic bishops.

“There is a special obligation of those who are in leadership because of their public visibility” observed Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend last week. Bishop Rhoades was speaking about Mr. Biden not Mr.Trump. In 2016 in fact he strongly criticized the decision by the University of Notre Dame to honor Mr. Biden, then Vice President, for his “outstanding service to church and society.” Rhoades criticized Biden for his support for abortion rights and gay marriage in violation of church teaching.

Despite an intervention from the Vatican’s doctrinal office in May 2021, urging the US bishops to exercise “extensive and serene dialogue” on the matter and follow a process of consultation with Catholic politicians who disagree on matters of church teaching, the US bishops voted to advance the drafting of a document after two hours of virtual debate where more than 40 bishops spoke for and against the measure. The debate over the document underlines the level of division among the US bishops. The document, which the Vatican has already cautioned needed more time for dialogue and episcopal unity, will now require the support of two-thirds majority of bishops and the Vatican’s approval.

Over the past seven months, when it comes to their approach to President Joseph R. Biden, the US Catholic bishops have been in a state of open discord, among themselves as well as with the Vatican. They expressed no such criticism about the person and policies of the former US president Donald Trump. In fact, the President of the USCCB, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, issued an unprecedented 1,200-word statement on President Joseph Biden’s Inauguration Day that warned “our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils.”

The Vatican, however, marked President Biden’s inauguration with a customary telegram congratulating him and urging him to pursue policies “marked by authentic justice and freedom.” While some bishops praised Gomez’s narrow focus on abortion in his statement, other bishops, like Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, labeled the statement as “ill-considered.” 

Throughout the USCCB’s June 2021 three-day meeting, a few bishops insisted the proposed Communion document was directed toward neither a particular person nor a particular political party. Those claims, however, were repeatedly contradicted and undermined by several bishops who stressed that both President Biden’s and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s kind of Catholicism was why they believed the document was greatly needed right now.

Among those who strongly oppose the proposed USCCB document as well as who oppose denial of Communion to President Biden is Bishop John Stowe, of Lexington, Kentucky. Bishop Stowe summarized his position in a recent tweet: “There’s a reason the longstanding pastoral practice of the church is to presume people present themselves for Communion in good conscience. Jesus is at work in their lives in ways we will never know. We should reverence the mystery of God’s grace at work in every person and the gift of faith present in every heart that seeks him in the sacraments. Jesus is not a legalist. He never ceases to draw people to himself. His arms outstretched, on the cross and in the sacraments, are where the saving occurs.”

As a US Catholic and a Catholic historical theologian, it seems clear to me that President Biden has shown himself to be a man of deep faith. Unlike his presidential predecessor, he is indeed totally pro-life. I find the USCCB’s targeting of a US president who is a devout Catholic a very sad reality. Clearly the US Catholic bishops appear to have decided to hold President Biden responsible for his nuanced and precise abortion stance. In the process they further distance themselves from open-minded Catholics and further promote the growth of far-right Catholic fundamentalism. 

It is not the same thing but the current US bishops’ action reminds me of the historically wrong choices made by the Spanish bishops during the 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War. Then the bishops backed the wrong national leader because of his supposed anti-Communism. In reality the Spanish bishops tolerated horrible crimes against humanity by their cruel national leader Generalisimo Francisco Franco. A cruel dictator supported by the bishops’ dysfunctional leadership. 

This current USCCB story is hardly over. Socio-political polarization and narrow theological vision will be the key themes. Only attentive listening and compassionate conversation can bring ecclesiastical health. 

Whether the bishops realize it or not, the winds of change are blowing for sure. As Sister Sister Joan Chittister, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, said in a recent talk, everything has changed and “everything must grow up, religion too. It must be much more than obeying rules.”

Jack, back at his Another Voice computer. Warmest regards to all.