Bishops Try to Backpedal As Backlash to Attack on Biden Grows

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City is one of the prime movers in the not-very-successful effort to discipline the president. Photo: John Hanna/AP/Shutterstock

Conservative U.S. bishops are learning that it is perilous to pose as being “more Catholic than the pope.” Defying public and private warnings from the Vatican, and ignoring sentiment in the pews, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last week authorized the preparation of a doctrinal statement on the Eucharist that was widely understood as being aimed at denying communion to pro-choice Catholic public officials, notably the president of the United States.

Now some of the bishops are hastily trying to downplay their intentions with “nothing to see here” disclaimers, as the National Catholic Reporter noted:

“It is important to note that the bishops did not vote to implement a national policy to deny Holy Communion to politicians who reject Church teaching,” [Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore] wrote. “Rather, in light of the decline in belief and participation in the Eucharist, the bishops voted to permit their Committee on Doctrine to begin drafting a pastoral document on the Eucharist.”

“It is not disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one person or class of persons,” he added. 

Nothing to see here, folks.

Unfortunately, and even comically, hard-core conservatives in and beyond the conference of bishops keep giving away the game, as the Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters sarcastically observes:

[W]hy all the fuss? Could it be that during the spring meeting several bishops, including a committee chair, Archbishop Joseph Naumann, specifically referenced politicians and Biden during their interventions?

Indeed, Naumann has argued that Biden’s pro-choice opinions represent “a grave moral evil.”

Winters cites a number of conservative U.S. Catholic opinion outlets that are adamant about kicking ass and taking names, using access to the altar rail as a culture-war weapon. That’s hardly surprising, given a 2019 statement by the U.S. bishops calling the abortion issue its “preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.” From that point of view, Biden and other Catholic Democratic pols have sold their souls to secular progressives with abortion-on-demand litmus tests, and need to be chastised as an object lesson to Cafeteria Catholics everywhere.

But alongside a frosty reception from the Vatican, the effort to figuratively excommunicate pro-choice Catholics isn’t going over very well, and could, as Catholic liberal writer E.J. Dionne suggests, seriously backfire:

[M]uch harm had already been done, as pro-Francis bishops pointed out during the debate [over the authorization of a statement]. “The Eucharist itself will be a tool in vicious partisan turmoil,” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego warned. “It will be impossible to prevent its weaponization, even if everyone wants to do so.”

A recent Pew survey, Dionne notes, found that 67 percent of U.S. Catholics oppose denying Biden communion. And the brouhaha may bring renewed attention to the fact that a solid majority of U.S. Catholics aren’t even opposed to legalized abortion in the first place. As the venerable scholar of both U.S. politics and Catholicism Garry Wills keeps pointing out, the theological case for what he calls the “cult of the fetus” is not as solid as is often assumed.

True, the most regular mass attenders are significantly more likely to hold anti-abortion views. But at a time when Catholicism in the U.S. and globally is suffering from a credibility crisis stemming from a horrific sexual-abuse scandal that the hierarchy has spent literally billions of dollars to hush up, it’s not the best time for “traditionalists” to champion a smaller and more illiberal Church. What the U.S. bishops are seeking to do is looked upon with unhappy amazement by their counterparts in other countries, as the New York Times reports:

Throughout much of Europe and Latin America, it is essentially unthinkable for bishops to deny communion to politicians who publicly support abortion rights. John Paul II famously offered communion to Francesco Rutelli, a former mayor of Rome and candidate for prime minister who supported abortion rights.

“Almost all of the bishops of the world at this moment look at the United States church,” said Mr. Ivereigh, “and wonder, ‘What is going on?’”

The American effort is “a very dangerous initiative” said Alberto Melloni, a church historian in Rome who said the Vatican had long abandoned the notion that the Catholic Church’s job is to guide politics.

Perhaps the U.S. bishops will avoid calamity by calling off the confrontation with Biden and other pro-choice Catholics in time, or maybe Pope Francis will veto any provocative statement, as he can if it is not unanimous. But it is increasingly clear it may not be Joe Biden, but his conservative critics, who are guilty of bending to secular politics instead of maintaining peaceful communion with and through the Body of Christ.

Bishops Backpedal As Backlash to Attack on Biden Grows