Today, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is meeting virtually for its June assembly. On the agenda is whether the Committee on Doctrine will be granted approval to develop a document on eucharistic coherence. While the focus has been on President Joe Biden and abortion, such a document–and the spirit behind it–could create new problems for LGBTQ Catholics, too.
The vote, which requires only a simple majority of the gathered bishops to succeed, has made headlines for months as the outgrowth of a working group established after Biden won the presidential election last November. Developments include a hypercritical statement from the Conference against Biden on Inauguration Day; an intervention from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, instructing the bishops to slow this process (which has all but been ignored); and a letter from more than 60 concerned U.S. bishops asking for debate of the proposal to be delayed until bishops can meet in person.
I agree with many observers who see this effort as a direct effort to deny Communion to President Biden over his policy disagreements with the U.S. bishops, or at the very least harm his public image. The president’s support for reproductive rights has been forefront, but his advocacy for LGBTQ rights is included, too. Despite the headlines and the provocative statements by some bishops, any final teaching document the Committee on Doctrine might produce would need unanimous approval or a two-thirds majority vote along with Vatican approval. Neither are likely given the division among the USCCB and the Vatican’s indication that it does not want communion used as a political weapon.
But the spirit behind the document needs no vote to succeed, and it could be quite damaging. An erroneous understanding of Eucharistic coherence, in which Catholicism’s most sacred sacrament is weaponized for partisan ends, could mean an uptick in Communion denials. Bishops have discretion within their own diocese to decide whether such a sanction is implemented. Some bishops, like San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone and Springfield, Illinois’ Bishop Thomas Paprocki, both with negative LGBTQ records, have shown a willingness to raise the stakes.
The public focus of this debate in recent years has been political leaders. Other high-profile Catholics who come under attack for their pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ views include Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dick Durbin. Yet, LGBTQ people know too well about the less public, but no less damaging instances where sacraments are withheld over a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or relationship status.
In the early days of Bondings 2.0, we reported on Barbara Johnson who was denied Communion at her mother’s funeral because she was a lesbian. Carol Parker and her partner, Josie Martin, were likewise denied Communion at the funeral for Parker’s mother. Lew Pryeor and Pierre Leveillee were sanctioned for entering a civil marriage. Many other denials never become public. And then there is the cost when LGBTQ people do not go to receive Communion out of fear they could be denied.
Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” In a sense, none of us are worthy to receive Communion. Only through God’s infinite mercy, about which Pope Francis constantly reminds us, are we able to step forward and join in the mystery of the Eucharistic celebration.
Despite the pope’s exhortation to mercy, some pastors appoint themselves to the divine position of being able to judge a person’s worthiness to receive Eucharist. Just by the bishops having this discussion about eucharistic coherence may embolden such pastors to be more aggressive in withholding the sacraments. Too often for these pastors, worthiness is reduced to whether someone is LGBTQ and therefore assumed to be in a state of sin.
The issue today is not simply about denying Communion to President Biden. It is about what kind of church we seek: one that excludes on the narrow grounds of some bishops’ obsession with sexuality and gender or one that expands its welcome to all who believe. Jesus’ prophetic table ministry gives us a pretty telling clue about his willingness to share his very being and presence with people. Let us pray that the U.S. bishops will look not only to Jesus in the Precious Body and Blood, but to Jesus’ presence in the entire Body of Christ as they chart a path forward.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 17, 2021