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It’s not just about the sacrament; it’s about communion

By Bishop W. Shawn McKnight

It’s not just about the Sacrament of Holy Communion; it’s about the communion of the Church.

There’s been much interest in whether the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) intends to restrict some politicians from receiving Holy Communion, based upon our Church’s pro-life teachings.

Church (canon) law, however, states the local diocesan bishop — not an episcopal conference — is the sole authority to make this determination for any Catholic in his diocese.

Nonetheless, the U.S. bishops’ conference has understood itself as having a specific religious and moral mission in the political order to form consciences, contribute to the public debate, and advocate for key public policy issues.

In approaching public officials and administrations in pursuit of this mission, the conference has historically adopted a stance of engagement, dialogue and critique.

Indeed, in a 2004 document of the USCCB entitled “Catholics in Public Life,” the bishops stated:

“We need to do more to persuade all people that human life is precious and human dignity must be defended. This requires more effective dialogue and engagement with all public officials, especially Catholic public officials.”

The Holy Father has placed encounter, dialogue, honesty and collaboration at the heart of his approach to public conversation, not confrontation or threats, and he has repeatedly indicated he is not in favor of using the Eucharist as a means to discipline politicians.

The U.S. bishops have also appreciated the need to keep the Eucharist out of the political fray over the years. “Catholics in Public Life” emphasized that pastoral approach.

To change hearts and minds, we cannot merely threaten punishment. 

At our virtual General Assembly held June 16-18, the bishops approved a motion for work to begin on drafting a teaching document on the Eucharist, which will include some discussion of the importance of personal integrity when one approaches Communion (termed “Eucharistic consistency” in the outline presented to us).

Yet, that motion was rejected by about a quarter of the bishops. While a supermajority approved the document to move forward, the number of “no” votes is unusually high for the body of bishops.

It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the interventions made that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

And there should be no doubt that the bishops are fully united in advocating for legal protections of the unborn and against the destruction of human life at its earliest stage.

We all share the profound moral imperative to enact legal protections for those whose lives are threatened by the grave evil of abortion.

The discussion, while difficult at times, was a healthy exchange. I am particularly grateful to Archbishop José Gomez, the archbishop of Los Angeles and president of the USCCB, for allowing everyone to speak, which was the aim of Archbishop Mitchel Rozanski’s good-faith motion of which I spoke in favor.

This practice, which gave everyone time to listen to each other, is in keeping with the synodal way urged by the Holy Father, Pope Francis. We need more, not less, of this kind of discernment in the Church, rather than simple parliamentary decision making. All of us could make more room for the Holy Spirit, to discern God’s will rather than decide things on our own.

In this vein, I was grateful for the letter sent last month from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, SJ, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, who counseled us to follow a path to unity for the bishops and the Church.

Cardinal Ladaria’s description of the kind of dialogue that must take place was particularly helpful. He said that an extended and serene dialogue among the bishops should lead to unity and consensus.

He also noted that dialogue with elected officials should aim at learning about their lives, why they take the positions they do, and what they know about the Catholic faith.

In other words, as bishops enter this dialogue with each other and with elected officials, there must be an openness to learn as well as share their own views.

This is in keeping with the vision of the Church Pope Francis advocated on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the synod of bishops, that is, a Church that is both ecclesia docens and ecclesia discens —a teaching Church and a Church that learns by discerning. 

In the short time I have been a bishop, I have learned that discussions in smaller groups and in person are more fruitful. I have seen this firsthand in the listening sessions held in our diocese following the scandals that erupted in the summer of 2018, as well as the process of discerning a new pastoral plan for our diocese last year.

Therefore, I supported the effort to have in-person regional and provincial meetings with bishops in the local area in advance of crafting any document that will touch upon “Eucharistic consistency.”

The fact that the meeting ended with a commitment by the USCCB’s president to organize meetings for the bishops on regional levels is heartening to me.

Before becoming a bishop, I worked at the USCCB. I learned that bishops return home to pray about what took place and discuss further with fellow bishops off-line. This allows their views to mature and prepares them for the next set of meetings.

I have every confidence that this dynamic will continue in this moment, and I have hope that the bishops will find the right way forward with the help of the Holy See.

As we bishops continue our discernment about what message is needed now about the Eucharist, I ask for your prayers that the virtues of charity and patience of St. Joseph may be ours, as well.