After a year of contentious debates, US bishops approve lukewarm communion document

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A bishop reviews documents during a Nov. 17 session of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference fall general assembly in Baltimore. (SNC / Roll Bob)

Baltimore – After more than a year of intense debate over a controversial document originally intended to target pro-choice Catholic politicians like President Joe Biden, US bishops instead approved a milquetoast text on November 17 summarizing Catholic teaching on the communion.

The 30-page document was adopted by the bishops at their November 15-18 assembly here just a day after the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States addressed the prelates and told them to calm the divisions between them. The document only makes an indirect reference to lay people who “exercise some form of public authority”.

These people, says the text, “have a special responsibility to form their conscience in accordance with the faith of the Church and the moral law, and to serve the human family by defending human life and dignity”.

The bishops approved the text by 222 votes to 8, with three abstentions, after a rather lukewarm debate in the floor of their assembly, which was held at the Marriott Waterfront hotel. Although several prelates requested small amendments to the proposed final text, they mainly focused on grammatical or linguistic issues, including the meaning of the phrase “et cetera”.

The document – immediately criticized online by conservative Catholics hoping the bishops would address politicians like Biden and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi – appears to represent a kind of moan ending an initiative launched for the first time by the Archbishop of Los Angeles, José Gomez, president of the Conference of the United States. Catholic Bishops, after Biden’s election victory in November 2020.

Just two weeks after Biden’s election, Gomez warned that Biden’s stance on abortion created a “difficult and complex situation” for bishops across the country. He also announced that the prelates would form a working group to address the issue. This group would eventually recommend that the Conference Doctrine Committee draft a document on the importance of “Eucharistic coherence”.

Speaking at a press conference on November 16, Gomez appeared to distort the origins of the possible communion text. The Archbishop told reporters the intention was never to speak specifically to Biden, but rather to help Catholics understand the importance of the Eucharist in their life of faith. Gomez called the text “absolutely necessary”.

Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and church historian at Villanova University, told NCR that the events of the last year risked turning the Catholic Church in the United States into a partisan and sectarian institution.

“Especially when the president of the USCCB shows a partisan understanding of the social and racial justice movement in the United States,” Faggioli said, referring to a controversial November 4 speech in which Gomez denigrated social justice movements modern, such as anti-racist groups like Black Lives. Matter, as “pseudo-religions” of Marxist and anti-Christian inspiration.

Faggioli said the Communion document controversy points to the “risk of an escalation from a culture war Catholicism that politicizes the sacraments, to a full-fledged” evangelization “of American Catholicism -” evangelization “in the sense of conservative white American evangelicals; and the loss of a Catholic sense of the church.

It was not immediately clear whether the American bishops would seek approval from the Vatican, known as the acknowledgement, of their new communion document. In votes on several other items on November 17, conference officials stressed the need for these items to receive a acknowledgement, but did not make such a statement on the text of Communion.

A canon lawyer consulted by NCR suggested that without the request to acknowledgement, the text could not be considered a “doctrinal statement”, according to the standards set out for episcopal conferences in the apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II Apostolos Suos.

During a press briefing on Nov. 17, the chairman of the Bishops Doctrine Committee, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, confirmed that the prelates would not seek Vatican approval for their text. Rhoades also framed the document as needed in order to deal with the declining number of Mass faithful among Catholics. Bishop-designate of Crookston, Minnesota, Andrew Cozzens, also acknowledged that an oft-cited study of Catholics’ beliefs about the Eucharist by the Pew Research Center could be misleading, and said the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University planned to “redo” this study.

Unlike the last bishops’ meeting in June, which was held virtually, the debate in Baltimore over the Communion text was minimal. Only four bishops commented during the document’s initial presentation on November 16, and three intervened in an open discussion during the final debate on November 17.

The bishops were also known to discuss the text in executive sessions, which are held behind closed doors. One of these sessions took place on November 15, another on the morning of November 16 and a third in the afternoon of November 16.

At the November 16 briefing, bishops introduced closed-door sessions as a normal part of their process, although assemblies in recent years have typically only included one executive session.

“It’s part of what we do,” said Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Va., Chair of the bishops committee on communications. “We have this allotted time to be able to talk to each other, as brother bishops. “

Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron, vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop of Los Angeles José Gomez, president, listen to a question during a Nov. 17 session of the general assembly of the fall bishops in Baltimore.  (SNC)

Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron, vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop of Los Angeles José Gomez, president, listen to a question during a Nov. 17 session of the general assembly of the fall bishops in Baltimore. (SNC / Roll Bob)

The final text of Communion bears the title “The mystery of the Eucharist in the life of the Church”.

Before the final text debate on November 17, the doctrinal committee recommended that bishops accept nine slight changes to the document proposed by individual bishops. They also recommended that the prelates refuse to adopt 19 other proposed changes.

The bishops broadly accepted the committee’s recommendations.

One amendment accepted was a request from Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron that a line be added to emphasize that the scandal, caused by those receiving Communion in a state of mortal sin, weakens “the resolve of other Catholics to be faithful. to the demands of the Gospel. . “

In accepting Vigneron’s amendment, the committee added a footnote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2284, which describes the scandal as “a serious offense” which harms other people and leads them deliberately to sin.

Another accepted amendment was proposed by Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordileone, a conservative prelate who openly clashed with Pelosi and lobbied for the document to address Catholics in public life who support abortion. legalized.

Cordileone sought to include unborn children in a section of the document that addresses categories of vulnerable people, such as the poor and victims of racial injustice. The bishops voted to accept this amendment, along with another by Auxiliary Bishop of Phoenix Eduardo Nevares to name migrants and refugees.

Among the amendments rejected by the bishops was a suggestion by Bishop Oscar Cantú of San José, California, that the text refer to the document of Vatican Council II. Gaudium et Spes‘affirmation that “the joys and the hopes, the sorrows and the anxieties of men of this age … are the joys and the hopes, the sorrows and the anxieties of the disciples of Christ”.

Among other points, on November 17, the bishops also voted to revise the Charter for the protection of children and young people, the set of procedures initially adopted in 2002 to protect children against sexual abuse by the clergy.

Presenting the proposal for review, Bishop James Johnston of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, chairman of the Bishops Child and Youth Protection Committee, said there was a need to address the various changes Pope Francis mandated in handling cases of sexual abuse.

The proposal was passed after several interventions, including one from retired Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, who appeared to request that charter procedures for removing accused priests from ministry be changed.

DiMarzio, whom the Vatican recently exonerated of sexual abuse allegations dating back half a century, asked the committee to address “the issue of priests withdrawn from ministry because they are in fact considered guilty until proven guilty. on the contrary “.

This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. CST to include information from the media briefing that took place in the early evening of November 17.

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