Monday, May 10, 2021

Amid US Bench's Communion Clash, The "Holy Office" Flashes A Red Light

As some US bishops advocate levying de facto sanctions on President Biden and other Catholic politicians for their support of legal abortion, the Holy See's distinct, but veiled skepticism over a Communion clash has taken a marked leap in volume, with the church's lead doctrinal official warning that the push would be "misleading if [it] were to give the impression that abortion and euthanasia alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability on the part of Catholics."

Dated Friday, 7 May, the message came in a letter from the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria SJ, to the USCCB President, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. Whispers has obtained the three-page missive, which was shared with the body of bishops over the weekend at Ladaria's behest. (As this piece goes to press, the text was similarly leaked to the Jesuit-run America magazine and Catholic News Service, the USCCB-owned wire.)

With the bench slated to vote next month on empowering its own Doctrine Committee to craft national guidelines on "Eucharistic coherence" on the part of public officials – and a few of its top conservatives urging an officeholder's support for abortion to disqualify them from receiving Communion – in his letter, the CDF chief expresses several stark reservations, leading with one apparently made by Rome during the 2019-20 ad limina visit: namely, that a "national policy" would "only" be useful "if this would help the bishops maintain unity." 

By contrast, Ladaria writes, "given its contentious nature," the proposal "could have the opposite effect and become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United States." What's more, echoing recent informal comments from allies of Pope Francis on both sides of the Atlantic, the cardinal stipulated as a "prerequisite" that any attempted norms – which, he said, should not be pursued unless and until the public officials in question have been "engage[d]" in dialogue – "would respect the rights of individual ordinaries in their dioceses and the prerogatives of the Holy See," the latter aspect a geopolitical necessity given the bilateral relations between the church's central administration and the United States government, to which the episcopal conference is not a party.

"Furthermore," the cardinal said, "the Congregation advises that any statement of the Conference regarding Catholic political leadership be framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful, rather than only one category of Catholics, reflecting their obligation to confirm their lives to the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ as they conform their lives to receive the sacrament."

In a parting tweak, the prefect urged the conference to make "every effort... to dialogue with other episcopal conferences" in order that any American plan "preserve unity in the universal church." Given appeals to universal practice by Stateside conservatives amid a defiant push by German progressives to undermine the CDF's recent Note banning liturgical blessings of same-sex couples, the same principle's employment on this issue is extraordinarily pointed.

As with last November's plenary – where Biden's Catholicism was first broached in the election's wake – next month's meeting will be virtual. Should the bishops charge the Doctrine Committee by majority vote to prepare draft guidelines, such a text would ostensibly be presented at the November meeting in Baltimore, which is expected to be the body's first in-person gathering since late 2019. 

As a doctrinal statement, the finished draft would need a two-thirds margin for passage, then require the subsequent recognitio of the Holy See for it to be binding in the US church. Notably here, as CDF would be the very organ tasked with granting Rome’s consent to the text, Ladaria’s letter effectively constitutes the roadmap of conditions any finished document would need to satisfy to secure his office’s approval. 

In any case, in the two dioceses where Biden spends most of his weekends, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington has consistently rejected any push to bar the second Catholic President from the Eucharist, and with the Democrat's home-church of Wilmington now in transition upon Bishop Fran Malooly's retirement, the Pope's Wilmington pick, now Bishop-elect Bill Koenig, said on his 30 April appointment that he looked forward to "a conversation" with Delaware's most prominent church-goer after his ordination in mid-July. 

Yet echoing today's letter a week ahead of time, Koenig added that, "as a bishop, I'm called to teach the beauty and the fullness of the Catholic faith."