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Analysis: The communion controversy could be far greater than just pro-abortion politicians

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Washington D.C., Feb 10, 2021 / 10:00 am (CNA).- Once again, U.S. bishops are debating whether to apply the canonical penalty of denying Communion to unrepentantly pro-abortion Catholic politicians.


While this conversation has been occurring for years within the conference, what is new is that some bishops are now framing this discussion within the broader topic of general worthiness to receive Holy Communion. Catholics in general, they argue—not just pro-abortion politicians—need to be more aware of the Church’s requirements for reception of Holy Communion, most importantly not being conscious of grave sin.


If the conference as a whole chooses to address this broader topic, it could carry great implications for sacramental practice in the U.S., but could also provoke a number of cynical reactions from Catholics who may not believe in the Real Presence.


The current conversation began when Joe Biden—who is Catholic and pro-abortion—ran for the presidency. Biden’s support for legal and taxpayer-funded abortion is well-known, and bishops have differed on whether canonical prohibitions on reception of Holy Communion should be applied if he were to present himself for Communion.


Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law states that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” 


Then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in his 2004 memo to the U.S. bishops, applied this canon. He stated that when a Catholic public official supports abortion and has been admonished for it by his pastor, he is not to present himself for Holy Communion unless and until he has publicly repented and recanted his position.


Bishops then and now have debated the application of this canon in particular circumstances.


However, now the U.S. bishops’ conference is reportedly drafting a statement on “Eucharistic coherence” in the wake of Biden’s election to the presidency. 


Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone alluded to this document in a Jan. 28 interview with EWTN Pro-Life Weekly.


In the interview, he was asked about the denial of Communion “for the sake of someone’s soul”—specifically, the case of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), another Catholic who has long supported legal abortion.


Cordileone noted that “private conversations” must first take place between the pastor and the Catholic seeking Communion, but went on to say, “We have a bigger problem too, in that so many Catholics don’t even understand the concept of worthiness to receive Communion, right? To be in the state of grace.”


“So the bigger problem is that Catholics no longer understand the idea of worthiness to receive Communion. It’s just seen as a sort of a token gesture of welcome and belonging. We have a huge catechetical effort here,” he added.


The archbishop explained in the interview that the USCCB has formed a working group to focus on the idea of “Eucharistic coherence.”


Beyond Catholic politicians, however, polling indicates that the need for catechesis on the Eucharist may warrant a broader audience.


In 2019, a Pew Research study found that fewer than one-third of Catholics (31%) surveyed believed in the Real Presence. More than two-thirds (69%) believed the Eucharist to be merely a symbol.


Several bishops – including Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles and Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland – have referred to this study as “a wake up call,” and Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria released a teaching document on the Eucharist a year earlier than planned as a means of addressing the confusion.


With these statistics in mind, the bishops may find it important to focus their Eucharistic coherence document on the larger issue of Catholics believing in the Real Presence when they receive Communion. 


But while there may be ample reason for the bishop to address a broader audience in their forthcoming document, it remains to be seen what kind of reception they will receive. The bishops’ credibility is still badly hurting in the wake of the McCarrick sexual abuse and cover-up scandal. 


In addition, it may be hard for the bishops to come across as authoritative when there is so much division within the conference. There has already been opposition to a USCCB statement on “Eucharistic coherence” during the Biden presidency, as well as application of canonical penalties.


At a Feb. 1 online panel, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego said that denying politicians Communion would be seen as “a weaponization of the Eucharist, and an effort not to convince people by argument, by dialogue and reason, but rather to pummel them into submission on the issue.”


At that same panel, former USCCB staffer John Carr said that bishops should spend more time talking about the humanity of the unborn than about denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians.


“There’s a reason why, throughout history, the Church hasn’t done this,” Carr said. To do so, he said, “seems to me theologically inappropriate.”


Without a unified approach, the bishops’ conference may find it challenging to reach precisely the segment of Catholics whom they most hope to reach with their message. If many Catholics already believe Communion to be just a “symbol,” as do Protestant denominations, they may not take kindly to being told by bishops to examine their consciences before approaching the altar rail—even if this is precisely what the Church has taught for more than two millennia.


Another consideration – as the bishops hope to help Catholics recover a proper sense of worthiness to receive Communion – is the connection with the sacrament of confession.


Although certain dioceses promote the sacrament of confession during Lent, there has not—yet—been mention by bishops of the need for confession as part of catechizing the faithful on reception of Holy Communion. 


A statement of the bishops on “Eucharistic coherence” might address the need for frequent confession if it is also to address reception of Communion.


These topics give an added importance to the release of the “Eucharistic coherence” document. How the bishops handle some of the issues surrounding the document could offer insight into how the conference plans to address other key questions regarding sacramental catechesis, internal division, and Catholic politicians in the coming months and years. 




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