Unity on Holy Communion?

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Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles

There has been a lot of discussion about the letter sent to Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who is president of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The letter, dated May 7, urged the U. S. bishops to adopt a policy regarding reception of Holy Communion that would not cause division among the bishops and among the Catholic Church in the United States. Cardinal Ladaria sent the letter in response to his being informed that the U. S. bishops are planning to consider a national policy regarding reception of Holy Communion at their upcoming June meeting.

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Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Apparently, some or several U. S. bishops brought up the matter during recent ad limina visits to Rome. Every bishop is required, as far as is possible, to visit Rome and meet with the pope every five years. Some or several bishops took the opportunity to raise the matter with Rome of Catholic politicians who publicly support policies that contradict Catholic morals, such as abortion, euthanasia, or same-sex marriage, presenting themselves to receive Holy Communion. Rome, it seems, mentioned the possibility of formulating a national policy on the question. But, Cardinal Ladaria said in his letter that, “dialogue among the bishops be undertaken to preserve the unity of the episcopal conference in the face of the disagreements over this controversial topic. The formulation of a national policy was suggested during the ad limina visits only if this would help the bishops to maintain unity.”

For Cardinal Ladaria, it seems, unity is essential. A national policy would not be recommended by the CDF unless all the bishops can get behind it. Alas, that is not likely, as there are bishops who are very public in their support for denying Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who adopt policies contrary to Catholic moral teaching and bishops who are public in their opposition to denying such politicians Holy Communion. Cardinal Ladaria, likely aware of these conflicting positions among the bishops, encouraged the bishops to engage in dialogue so they, “agree as a Conference that support of pro-choice legislation is not compatible with Catholic teaching.” Now, that is an interesting statement for one bishop to write to another bishop about the conference of bishops in any particular country. It rather implies that at least some of the U. S. bishops are not aware that pro-choice legislation is incompatible with Catholic moral teaching, so dialogue is necessary to make sure all the bishops are aware of this. It may be that this is so. It may be that, even among the bishops, there are those who have adopted a more secular understanding of pluralism, not unlike that adopted by some Catholic politicians and their “personally opposed, but…” stand. The CDF published a Doctrinal note in 2002 entitled “On some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life” that offers an excellent understanding of pluralism from a Catholic perspective: “Christians are called to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism and accept that democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society.” So, protecting the lives of the innocent threatened by abortion or euthanasia is not simply a Catholic principle, but an ethical principle that underpins life in society. This cuts off at the legs any claim a Catholic politician may make that, while he or she personally opposes abortion, he or she does not feel that they can impose their Catholic moral principles on others in a pluralistic society, because protection of the innocent is not merely a Catholic moral principle, but a principle that underpins society itself. If we fail to protect the most innocent among us, we are knocking out one of the girders on which society is upheld.

Cardinal Ladaria, in his letter, explains that it is the responsibility of any particular bishop to dialogue with any particular Catholic politician who supports policies contrary to Catholic morals in their respective dioceses to make sure the Catholic politician is aware of Catholic teaching and “the nature of their positions,” by which I take to mean their positions being in opposition to Catholic moral teaching and the potential consequences for society for adopting such a position. I cannot imagine any current Catholic politician being unaware of the Church’s teaching on such questions as abortion and euthanasia, but the cardinal is right in saying that the dialogue must take place prior to any thought of denying the politician Holy Communion or recommending that he or she not present him or herself for Holy Communion. After this dialogue took place, it would be up to the bishops to decide how to then proceed, should the Catholic politician choose not to abandon his or her policies and make clear that he or she intends to continue coming forward to receive Holy Communion.

Cardinal Ladaria then writes that, “If it then decided to formulate a national policy on worthiness for communion, such a statement would need to express a true consensus of the bishops on the matter, while observing the prerequisite that any provisions of the Conference in this area would respect the rights of individual Ordinaries in their dioceses and the prerogatives of the Holy See.” As far as I can tell, the only national policy on worthiness of communion that would represent a “true consensus” among the bishops is the current policy of leaving the matter up to the Ordinary of the particular diocese of which the offending politician belongs. So, despite the intention of discussing the matter in June, and despite letters back and forth between the U. S. and Rome calling for “unity,” after June, we will be in the same place we are today, meaning a variety of positions on the question depending on the bishop of any particular diocese. Nancy Pelosi, then, may be encouraged to not present herself for Holy Communion in San Francisco, and may even be denied Holy Communion should she present herself. However, when she attends Mass in Washington, DC (I have no idea if she even attends Mass anywhere), she will almost certainly not be advised to not present herself for Holy Communion, much less be denied the sacrament. The same would be true for Joe Biden, or any other Catholic politician who publicly adopts policies contrary to Catholic morals.

It would be nice, not to say ideal, if the bishops spoke with one voice on this matter, and that one voice reflected fidelity to canon law and to the importance of respecting innocent human life at all stages. That is not the case, however. So long as that is not the case, Catholic politicians like Pelosi and Biden will continue to exploit that lack of unity among the bishops on these questions, insisting that they are devout Catholics who respectfully disagree with the Church on their responsibility to uphold Catholic teaching or those non-negotiable ethical principles on which society is built. The consequences will be devastating. Given the current state of affairs, where we have several bishops and hundreds of priests and religious causing confusion among the faithful, there is little more we can expect.

I pray for my country. I pray for my Church.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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