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COMMENTARY: Unpacking the controversy about eucharistic consistency

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COMMENTARY: Unpacking the controversy about eucharistic consistency

The June virtual meeting of the U.S. bishops has created a firestorm of press coverage and commentary regarding a proposed document on the Eucharist, unfortunately, much of it negative.

Watching some journalists trying to describe the situation has been at times frustrating, but it is hard to blame them, since there is disagreement even among some bishops over what is being contemplated.

In its simplest form, the proposed document’s intent is summed up in its title: “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church: Why It Matters.”

There is some worrisome evidence that many Catholics may not be able to confidently explain “why it matters.” Polls suggest this, and the slow return of Catholics to celebrating Mass together suggests this as well.

While the bishops are also planning a three-year agenda for a “eucharistic revival,” the proposed document was initially prompted by a working group formed by Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, president of the bishops’ conference, after the 2020 virtual bishops’ assembly last November.

Archbishop Gomez asked the group to consider how to respond to a newly elected Catholic president who was perceived to “support policies that attack some fundamental values we hold dear as Catholics,” including “the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and the preservation of Roe v. Wade.”

This working group made two recommendations, a letter addressed to the new president and “a document addressed to all of the Catholic faithful on eucharistic coherence.”

At the June meeting, after long debate, the bishops approved the drafting of the document, which will focus on “the Eucharist as a mystery to be believed, a mystery to be celebrated and a mystery to be lived,” according to Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, chair of the bishops’ doctrine committee charged with its drafting.

What has confused matters is that there has been a vocal campaign for months to disallow President Joe Biden from receiving Communion because of his policy positions on abortion.

Such a decision is solely the prerogative of the local bishop, however, and President Biden’s local bishop, Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory, has already made it clear that he will not do that.

Because of this campaign, and because several bishops during the June 17 debate mentioned President Biden and abortion as a reason such a document is needed, many reporters assume that the planned document is an explicit rebuke of President Biden.

While that debate was wide-ranging, observers have noted that another morally serious issue that was never mentioned was the death penalty. Although there are well-known Catholic politicians and officials who continue to support its use, the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it clear that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (No. 2267).

In retrospect, mention of the death penalty within the context of eucharistic consistency debate might have made the discussion appear less partisan, reminding Catholics that neither of the major parties have agendas completely compatible with Catholic teaching.

While abortion is certainly a point of severe conflict between some politicians and the church, Bishop Rhoades has assured his brothers that the document would not be fixated on only one issue, nor would it be directed at one class of Catholics, such as politicians.

“In a document addressed to all Catholics, it will cover the broad range of Catholic social teaching,” he said. “All of us as Catholics will be able to find ourselves in this teaching.”

The bishops’ debate, civil as it was, made it clear there are differing expectations and concerns regarding this document. The challenge for the doctrine committee will be to create a document that will unify rather than further divide.

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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at gerlandson@catholicnews.com.

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