As a Catholic feminist, I usually expect bad news from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But this year, the bishops are outdoing themselves. As they opened their annual meeting Wednesday, they began to debate whether to refuse to give communion to pro-choice politicians such as President Joe Biden.
Many bishops feel threatened by Biden's thoughtful approach to his faith, in which he makes a distinction between his personal moral code and his obligations as a leader.
Communion is the most sacred part of a sacred ritual — the moment at Mass when the priest presides over the changing of bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. Denying communion is a bit like shunning, with a distinctive Catholic wallop. Not only are Catholics shamed before their fellow worshippers; they are also denied access to the divine.
The bishops' position on withholding communion to pro-choice politicians is yet another skirmish in a longtime political war unique to the U.S. Bishops abroad seem to have a more nuanced understanding of their role in a democracy, one that is more in keeping with the church's teachings about the primacy of the individual's conscience in deciding worthiness for communion.
The bishops' posturing is also unnecessary. They already have the discretion to deny Biden communion. So this debate actually is designed to do only one thing — focus the attention of Catholics and the media on the "conflict" between Biden's Catholicism and the church's anti-abortion stance and potentially drag in a lot of progressive Catholic Democrats along with him.
At bottom, it's not even about abortion. The bishops know full well that Catholic elected officials such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., or Democratic senators like Tim Kaine of Virginia and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York aren't going to switch positions to accede to their demands.
Instead, it is about power. By naming themselves the leaders of a mini-Inquisition that can shame and shun any Catholic who fails to toe the line, the bishops believe they can restore their authority in the church. To deny a practicing Catholic communion is a serious weapon, which makes the bishops even stronger soldiers in the culture wars.
Even conservative popes haven't gone this far. Pope John Paul II gave communion to two abortion rights supporters — Tony Blair, then the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and the mayor Rome. During his U.S. visit, Pope Benedict XVI didn't object when Pelosi received communion at a papal Mass.
Robert McElroy, the bishop of San Diego, warned in a recent op-ed that excluding pro-choice leaders from communion "will bring tremendously destructive consequences," as it means "the Eucharist is being weaponized and deployed as a tool in political warfare."
He predicted that "fully half the Catholics in the United States will see this action as partisan in nature, and it will bring the terrible partisan divisions that have plagued our nation into the very act of worship that is intended by God to cause and signify our oneness."
Since a majority of American Catholics agree that abortion should be legal in at least some cases, it was appropriate for McElroy to then ask: "How many of the faithful will be eligible for the Eucharist by this criterion?"
McElroy also joined a letter urging his fellow bishops to postpone this discussion, at least until in-person meetings in the fall, when they can negotiate face to face. A high-ranking Vatican official made essentially the same request for a delay but also was rebuffed.
Why the haste? I assume that many bishops feel threatened by Biden's thoughtful approach to his faith, in which he makes a distinction between his personal moral code and his obligations as a leader of a pluralistic democracy.
"Because President Biden is Catholic, it presents a unique problem for us," Kansas City, Kansas, Archbishop Joseph Naumann recently told The Associated Press. "It can create confusion," he explained. "How can he say he's a devout Catholic and he's doing these things that are contrary to the church's teaching?"
Naumann added: "He doesn't have the authority to teach what it means to be Catholic — that's our responsibility as bishops. ... Whether intentional or not, he's trying to usurp our authority."
But in this effort to style themselves as the church's sheriffs, the bishops are only showing how much they fear losing their power. In 1970, nearly 55 percent of Catholics attended Mass every week. By 2015, the number had declined to less than a quarter. Last year, nearly 30 million adults raised Catholic no longer identified themselves as members of the church.
To pass the communion measure, a proposal to draft the document will first need a majority of the bishops. Progressive bishops at the opening session Wednesday proposed that every bishop who desired to comment be given the time to weigh in.
Their motion was perceived as a "filibuster" to gum up the works and was defeated by 59 percent of the members. The vote Thursday, if successful, would start the drafting process for the exclusion language; the soonest the bishops would be able to approve a final document is at their fall meeting.
Whatever the vote's outcome, the attack on pro-choice Catholic politicians alone could have a significant political effect on more stringent adherents. Lots of Catholic voters live in swing states, and pious voters tend to follow the bishops on abortion.
In 2016, it's likely that white Catholics in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania contributed to the 80,000 votes that catapulted Donald Trump into the presidency. Last year, the Catholic vote was largely split, suggesting that Biden's faith may have helped him win. But if he and the dozens of pro-abortion-rights Catholic Democrats in Congress are perceived as fallen Catholics, how will that affect the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential race?
The real tragedy is that the bishops are wasting an opportunity to work with an administration pushing for reforms that could increase financial support for American families.
The real tragedy is that the bishops are wasting an opportunity to work with an administration pushing for reforms that could increase financial support for American families. The conference itself recognizes the role that poverty plays in driving women to seek abortions. And yet it fails to understand that reducing poverty is one viable way to reduce the number of these procedures.
"There are so many other critical issues that the Catholic bishops could be cooperating on," said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the University of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. Their "outsize focus on abortion and abortion politics," she added, is mystifying. Biden "could be the best thing to happen to the U.S. Catholic Church in decades. And they're squandering that."