As the bishops of the United States gather this month for their first in-person meeting in more than a year, a topic of central focus will be the Eucharist. Whether expressed in terms of “eucharistic coherence” or of “eucharistic revival,” the discussion of how we conduct ourselves around the central sacrament of our faith will be the most prominent event at the biannual meeting and the topic of a document that may be published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The contents of that proposed document have been the source of much speculation and no small amount of concern among American Catholics, particularly because the election of a pro-choice Catholic, Joseph R. Biden Jr., as president added a new wrinkle to the ever-fraught issue of abortion politics in the United States. How should the bishops engage a Catholic president whose abortion policies contradict the teachings of the church? And to what degree should the attempts at engagement with Mr. Biden’s predecessor—who was far from simpatico with Catholic teaching on any number of important political issues—inform and influence that effort?
An important first step is for everyone—from bishops to reporters to priests to those in the pews—to recognize that the disagreements we have in the Catholic Church in the United States around the Eucharist are largely about discipline, not doctrine. One would be hard-pressed to find a prominent Catholic voice arguing that the church’s teachings on the Eucharist are wrong. Instead, most arguments about the sacrament are not about the essence of the church’s eucharistic theology, but a question of church practice in light of those beliefs: Who can receive Communion and when?
The disagreements we have in the Catholic Church in the United States around the Eucharist are largely about discipline, not doctrine.
No one has ever suggested that the participation of the U.S. bishops in the American political process is dependent upon the church changing its eucharistic teachings. State interference in Catholic life is not something to be feared here. In reality, most attempts to address the question of Catholic politicians in 2021 are coming from within the church itself.
Were one to consult any individual bishop about questions of eucharistic practice, he would first make it clear that the critical issue of abortion is not the only issue at hand. Huge percentages of Catholics have not received Communion for the better part of two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic, part of a eucharistic famine occurring around the world. It is exacerbated in those parts of the world seriously lacking priests—which are also the regions most hard-hit by Covid-19. As the Eucharist is central to Catholic life, this is a very serious matter.
Mass attendance in the United States—already in steep decline in the years before the Covid crisis—is at an all-time low. Further, a Pew Research Center survey in 2019 raised alarms with its conclusion that most self-described Catholics “personally believe that during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine used in Communion ‘are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’” According to Pew, “just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31 percent) say they believe that ‘during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.’”
According to Pew, “just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31 percent) say they believe that ‘during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.’”
America and others have pointed out that the terminology used in that survey falsely leads to the assumption that a substantial number of American Catholics are denying a central doctrine of the Catholic Church. But the obvious opacity around what Catholics perceive to be the church’s teaching on the Eucharist does make it clear that confusion reigns, and suggests that a proper understanding of the importance of the reception of this central sacrament—“the source and summit of the Christian life”—is becoming less central to the identity of many Catholics.
Indications from the lead-up to the bishops’ meeting suggest that the bishops as a whole have walked away from the notion that any document produced by the bishops’ conference should outline a national policy on when and where to deny Catholic politicians Communion. This is to the good. Not only would such a policy have little prescriptive authority on the local level (Catholic canon law is clear that an individual bishop holds authority over such matters in his own diocese), it would also reinforce the common perception that abortion policy is the sole topic of interest in the political life of the American bishops.
What will we see instead? Hopefully a plan that outlines how to reinforce the importance of the Eucharist in the life of every Catholic, politician or not. That begins with a recognition of the need for continued catechesis at every stage of life, so that we all have a better understanding of the importance of the Eucharist. Reverence for the sacrament itself, after all, can also lead to greater eucharistic coherence. The scrupulous Jansenism of previous ages caused many Catholics to avoid the sacrament. At the same time, the nature of the sacrament requires Catholics to approach Communion with reverence and after careful examination of conscience. The way forward should validate the generous welcome that belongs to the nature of the Eucharist while also affirming that reception of the Eucharist must never be rote or cavalier.
The way forward should validate the generous welcome that belongs to the nature of the Eucharist while also affirming that reception of the Eucharist must never be rote or cavalier.
Similarly, increased literacy about and devotion to the Eucharist can eliminate the unfortunate habit in Catholic circles—journalists included—of reducing one’s eucharistic practice to a “litmus test” for one’s Catholicity. We ask whether Mr. Biden is showing proper reverence for the sacrament when he presents himself for Communion, yet this is a question that every Catholic, priest and communicant, should ask.
Civil, charitable and open-minded commitment to dialogue will be necessary if we are to bring about a eucharistic revival. In that case, perhaps even pondering the questions asked in the previous paragraph is counterproductive. What if instead of focusing on who is worthy to give or receive the Eucharist, we focus on how important it is for us to receive it? The source and summit of our lives is not a performance but a personal encounter with the only Son of the Living God.
We would all do well to remember the words of Pope Benedict XV, spoken more than a century ago, at a time when the Catholic Church in both Europe and the United States was wracked by ideological divides. “As regards matters in which without harm to faith or discipline—in the absence of any authoritative intervention of the Apostolic See—there is room for divergent opinions, it is clearly the right of everyone to express and defend his own opinion,” the pope wrote.
“But in such discussions no expressions should be used which might constitute serious breaches of charity; let each one freely defend his own opinion, but let it be done with due moderation, so that no one should consider himself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with his ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith or to discipline.”