Under not-so-subtle pressure from the Vatican and Pope Francis himself, and amid fears the Church would become a vehicle for partisan politics, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops backed off a long-standing threat to urge denial of access to Communion to pro-choice Catholic pols like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. Instead, the bishops adopted what one Catholic periodical called a “milquetoast text summarizing Catholic teaching on Communion”:
The 30-page document was passed by the bishops at their Nov. 15-18 assembly here only a day after the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S. addressed the prelates and told them to tamp down divisions among themselves. The document makes only one oblique reference to laypeople who “exercise some form of public authority.”
Such persons, the text says, “have a special responsibility to form their consciences in accord with the Church’s faith and the moral law, and to serve the human family by upholding human life and dignity.”
The original idea for such a statement came mostly from conservative prelates who wanted to provide a stamp of approval for the occasional bishop or priest who refused the Communion wafer (more officially the sacrament of the Eucharist) to public officials thought to be in defiance of Church teachings on abortion. It’s been an issue for a while. When John Kerry became the third Catholic (after Al Smith and JFK) to win a presidential nomination in 2004, he had to be careful about where he went to mass while campaigning lest a conservative cleric make an example of him at the Communion rail. Senator Dick Durbin hasn’t been able to take Communion in his home diocese of Springfield for the last 17 years for the same reason. And in 2019, Biden himself was denied Communion by a South Carolina priest during the early phase of his presidential bid.
But as momentum built among the bishops for a statement on the Eucharist that included or encouraged a ban on Communion by pro-choice politicians, the Vatican, which had the power to veto such a doctrinal statement if it was made, rained on the parade regularly. In June, Rome issued what the New York Times called a “remarkably public stop sign” aimed at the American bishops. In September, Francis himself condemned the idea of denying Communion over political issues. And if there was any doubt left about his position, it should have gone away in late October, when Francis gave Biden a private audience and the president subsequently told the world the supreme pontiff had told him he was “a good Catholic” who ought to continue taking Communion.
So the American bishops saw the handwriting on the wall. A supermajority of 163 prelates voted for the resolution in June authorizing a statement on the Eucharist. But then, 222 of them (with just eight dissenters) approved the “milquetoast” document that ultimately emerged from the brouhaha.
While this was an important symbolic victory for Biden and other pro-choice Catholics (a group that includes at least half of self-identified church members in the U.S.), it could also strengthen the mutterings of sedition among conservatives who have problems with the current pope on a broad range of issues, from his vocal position demanding action on climate change to his sympathy for immigrants and refugees, along with such doctrinal issues as his relative intolerance toward the Latin Mass.
There is no question Francis is determined to stop “weaponization of the Eucharist” to punish “disobedience,” whether it’s from pro-choice or pro-LGBTQ pols, from those practicing contraception, or from nominally excommunicated Catholics who are divorced and remarried. Not that long ago, the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (whose authority they championed) convinced conservatives the Church had undertaken a counterrevolution against “liberals” who were being hunted down and silenced. Now they are the rebels, and they aren’t happy about it.