I will join my brother bishops of the United States (USCCB) at our annual meeting in Baltimore, beginning Monday, November 15, 2021.  This will be our first “in-person” meeting since 2019 due to the pandemic.  Although there is no vaccine-mandate to be observed, the bishops will be required to wear masks indoors during the meeting.

 

As I look over the proposed agenda, I see that there are many of the ordinary types of reports and consultations listed for our collective consideration.  The “big ticket” item seems to be a review of and potential vote on the draft of a new document on the Holy Eucharist, composed by the Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, entitled “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.”

Along with other agenda items, the draft was circulated to the U.S. Bishops on their “bishops only” website in late September.  Some Bishops shared the draft text with diocesan staff and others recognized theological experts for review and comment.  It also made its way into the hands of some journalists who published the text and their own commentary, noting that it was “leaked” to them.  I was not aware that it was ever considered a “secret document,” but some folks do love drama!  At any rate, the draft is publicly accessible for those interested in reading it.

It has been my experience over the years that when the USCCB writes a document, a great deal of time and attention is given to developing the text both prior to and during the sessions of our annual meeting.  The initiative for writing such documents is prompted by issues or circumstances that the Bishops consider important to address or clarify for the sake of the Catholic Church in our country.  I must confess that as we Bishops grapple with the subject matter and text of our published documents, I often ask myself “who will read this?” “Will it ever reach the faithful ‘in the pews’ – or even the clergy for that matter – for whom it is intended?” “Are we Bishops just preaching to ourselves (which is not necessarily a bad thing)?”

In more recent years, certain important documents issued by the Pope or the Holy See for the universal Catholic Church, are “leaked” or obtained by a few privileged “insiders” or by the secular (or some Catholic) media before the Bishops – the authentic and authoritative teachers of the Church by virtue of the grace of ordination and the Office they hold – even have the chance to read and study them in order to instruct the faithful appropriately and “authentically” regarding their content, meaning and application to the Christian life. I don’t know who is doing this “leaking” but it just doesn’t seem right to me.  By the time the Bishops speak or write on a given text, the “insiders” and secular (or some Catholic) media have already put their “spin” on the text and the Bishops are left not to teach but, rather, to defend, clarify or correct the “spin,” which is often a misrepresentation.

I am not criticizing the secular media here, although the “Catholic” media should know better.  It is not wise to criticize those who “buy their ink by the barrel.” They are doing their job presenting what they consider newsworthy. That’s what they are paid to do and that’s what “sells newspapers” or attracts people to blogs and websites.  I am just saying, rather, that it is unfortunate that the faithful are not given the chance to be taught by the Catholic Church’s authentic and authoritative teachers before the commentaries and “opinion pieces” are rendered.  But, alas, that’s the world in which we live, and we Bishops and pastors are left to do the best we can to teach the faithful.

The USCCB has had the same experience in publishing its documents.  And the proposed document of the Bishops on the Holy Eucharist is a current and prime example.

In 2019, the Pew Research Center published the results of a study conducted about what U.S. Catholics believe about the Holy Eucharist, noting that:

Transubstantiation – the idea that during Mass, the bread and wine used for Communion become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ – is central to the Catholic faith. Indeed, the Catholic Church teaches that “the Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life.’”

Their survey found that:

… most self-described Catholics don’t believe this core teaching. In fact, nearly seven-in-10 Catholics (69 percent) say they personally believe that during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine used in Communion “are symbols of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.” 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.”

In addition to asking Catholics what they believe about the Eucharist, the new survey also included a question that tested whether Catholics know what the Church teaches on the subject. Most Catholics who believe that the bread and wine are symbolic do not know that the Church holds that transubstantiation occurs. Overall, 43 percent of Catholics believe that the bread and wine are symbolic and also that this reflects the position of the Church. Still, one-in-five Catholics (22 percent) reject the idea of transubstantiation, even though they know about the Church’s teaching.

The vast majority of those who believe that the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Christ – 28 percent of all Catholics – do know that this is what the Church teaches. A small share of Catholics (3 percent) profess to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist despite not knowing the Church’s teaching on transubstantiation.

… The survey also finds that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is most common among older Catholics, though majorities in every age group (including 61 percent of those age 60 and over) believe that the bread and wine are symbols, not the actual Body and Blood of Christ.

Of course, the results of a secular survey such as this on a central teaching of the Catholic faith was, and is, a cause for alarm within the Catholic Church, especially among the Bishops of the United States. If the survey (and that’s a big “if”) accurately reflects the belief – or lack of belief – of US Catholics in the Holy Eucharist, where have we Bishops failed or slipped in our teaching? A second question also arises, no less concerning, where have the faithful failed or slipped in their believing? The Catholic Church’s teaching on the Holy Eucharist has not changed.  Why has our believing? The Holy Eucharist is not a “symbol” of the Lord Jesus Christ’s presence. It IS his presence, whole and entire, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the community of faith celebrating the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass and receiving Holy Communion and in the tabernacle containing the sacred species that remain reserved.

In 2006, thirteen years prior to the Pew survey, the USCCB published a document on the Eucharist entitled, “‘Happy Are Those Called to His Supper’: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist.”  Not only did the Bishops at that time present a rich and beautiful teaching on the reality and meaning of the Eucharist, but they also dealt with the thorny questions of who may or may not, who should or should not receive Holy Communion, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church. They did not name names or point fingers at any occupations, although their exposition was quite clear.  The Bishops concluded their document by encouraging all the faithful how to properly dispose themselves to “receive Holy Communion more worthily.” I return to my earlier questions, “who read this document?” “Did it reach the faithful ‘in the pews’ and the clergy entrusted with their pastoral care?” “Were the Bishops simply preaching to themselves?”

Fast forward from 2006 to the present moment when a new USCCB document on the Holy Eucharist is under consideration. The draft text is certainly a beautiful exposition on “The Mystery of the Holy Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” Does it present something different, something fuller, something richer and better than the 2006 document of the Bishops? It is beautifully and well written, although some who have read the draft have suggested that its expression is somewhat theologically dated, perhaps even pre-conciliar (Vatican II).  Will it have any impact upon those who responded to the 2019 Pew survey? Will it teach something “more” that will inspire the faithful today to “believe” what the Catholic Church has taught and believed about the Holy Eucharist through the centuries? Will it make a difference?  Once the draft text is discussed, debated, voted on by the Bishops and finalized, the answers to those questions will remain to be seen.  It will all depend upon how well dioceses and parishes will make its contents known.

Unfortunately, this well-intentioned initiative was co-opted before the draft text on the Holy Eucharist was even written, by those who have sought, perhaps even demanded, that the Bishops focus their attention and use their teaching and governing authority to confront Catholic politicians who receive Holy Communion while adhering to and advocating certain positions contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church, chief among them, abortion.  The secular media as well as some Catholic blogs and websites have contributed mightily to that expectation, especially since the election of a president who is both a baptized, practicing Catholic and decidedly pro-choice. A number of Bishops have also been quite vocal in sharing and supporting that expectation as was evidenced at the embarrassing televised June 2021 USCCB ZOOM meeting and in subsequent statements of individual and regional groups of Bishops.

That abortion is morally evil and those who advocate its legitimation in legislative or judicial actions considered “cooperators in moral evil” is not in question here.  The Bishops have been firm and consistent in denouncing such things as evil and scandalous in themselves, especially when the advocates are Catholics.  The questions emerge as a result, however, should pro-choice Catholic politicians and elected officials be officially and explicitly prohibited from receiving Holy Communion and should that prohibition be officially and explicitly stated in any new document on the Holy Eucharist? Should the provisions of canon law on the topic (canons 915 and 916) be officially and explicitly affirmed and applied in the new text? What was originally intended by the Bishops as seizing the necessary opportunity primarily to re-present and re-educate the faithful on the Catholic Church’s doctrine on the Holy Eucharist seems to have now become a more urgent call for the Bishops to enforce the Church’s discipline on Catholic pro-choice politicians.  Some Catholic journalists have opined that “Eucharistic prohibition” of Catholic pro-choice politicians and elected officials such as President Biden was the actual intention and hoped-for result of the Bishops’ proposed new document on the Holy Eucharist in the first place.  As a Bishop, I never heard that intention expressed by the Bishops.  Some folks seem to know more about what Bishops think and intend than Bishops!

The draft text as it currently exists does not specifically focus upon Catholic pro-choice politicians and elected officials and prohibiting them from receiving Holy Communion, which has disappointed, frustrated and angered those who have lobbied hard for its inclusion since the June 2021 USCCB meeting.  The Bishops who drafted the text have opted, rather, for a broader, more comprehensive restatement and re-presentation of the Catholic Church’s traditional understanding of what it means for Catholics to receive the Holy Eucharist worthily, similar to that presented by the Bishops in 2006.  That will appeal to some Bishops as sufficient and to others as incomplete. What will happen at the November 2021 meeting’s consideration of the draft is, obviously, yet to be seen.  Whatever the outcome, I pray that the Holy Eucharist will be better understood, appreciated and loved and that the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ will continue to remain at the center of our Catholic lives as their “source and summit.”