Although the U.S. bishops’ concern for “Eucharistic coherence” is widely viewed simply as a prelude to censuring President Joe Biden, a Catholic, for receiving Communion while supporting abortion, what is actually at stake goes way beyond even a potential skirmish with a sitting president.
Bishops have criticized presidents before and likely will do so again. But in a broader perspective, Biden is just a symptom, albeit a highly visible one, of a serious problem afflicting the Church for years: confusion and lack of respect regarding the Eucharist among a significant number of Catholics.
Numbers tell the story. The percentage of U.S. Catholics who attend Mass weekly peaked at 74% in 1958 and since then has plummeted, reaching 21.1% in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year. Now projections suggest it will fall to around 12% next year or the year after.
|The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets twice a year to conduct its business and address matters of importance for the U.S. Church. The public portions of the spring general assembly, which is scheduled for June 16-18, will be livestreamed at the conference’s website, usccb.org.|
As if that weren’t bad enough, a 2019 Pew Research survey found only 1 in 3 self-identified Catholics believes that Christ is really present in the Eucharist as the Church teaches he is. The level of belief rises to about 2 out of 3 among those who attend Mass weekly, but even among them about a third think Christ is only present in a symbolic way.
The bishops will discuss the situation during the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to be held virtually June 16-18.
The Biden problem
A month before the meeting, 67 bishops signed on to a letter to bishops’ conference leadership asking that the whole discussion be postponed. But that was before it became apparent that USCCB was moving toward a document that would discuss respect for the Eucharist in general terms instead of homing in on pro-abortion Catholic politicians.
While campaigning last year, Biden said he supported abortion “under any circumstances,” repudiated his previous support for the Hyde Amendment barring use of federal funds for abortion, and promised to “codify” the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Since becoming president, he and his administration have taken numerous steps to make abortion more available.
As the Church sees it, the problem with all this is not only Biden’s backing of abortion but also the fact that Biden, a lifelong Catholic, continues to receive Communion at Mass contrary to Church doctrine and canon law.
Against this background, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the bishops’ conference, established a working group headed by USCCB vice president Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit to make recommendations. One recommendation was for a statement on “Eucharistic coherence” to be prepared by the bishops’ doctrine committee chaired by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses the idea when, quoting St. Justin Martyr, a second-century Father of the Church, it says: “No one may take part in [the Eucharist] unless he believes that what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ taught” (No. 1355).
Whatever the bishops decide, the larger problem — declines in Mass attendance and respect for the sacrament — will remain.
Writing in April in America magazine, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver said, “Many baptized Catholics do not take the Eucharist seriously,” something he blamed on “bad catechesis” — religious education — “overseen by me and my brother bishops for far too long.”
“When the Eucharist is treated casually in our liturgy, minimized in the confessional or ignored in homilies, then we should not be surprised by confusion regarding its sacredness. … In this respect, the ministers of the Faith have, perhaps, the greater responsibility for improper reception of the Eucharist,” Archbishop Aquila wrote.
Certainly the Catholic Church is hardly the only religious body suffering these days. In the United States and other developed countries, most churches have experienced sharp drops in membership in the last two decades, while the number of “nones” — people with no religious affiliation — has risen, reaching about 1 out of 4 people in the U.S.
But the erosion of faith in the Eucharist among Catholics does have special features, traced by British sociologist Stephen Bullivant in a widely praised book “Mass Exodus” (Oxford, $32.95), which takes a searching look at “disaffiliation” among Catholics in the United States and Great Britain since the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.
Among contributing factors, he writes, was the abandonment of Eucharistic devotions like Corpus Christi processions and the “Forty Hours” that had been an important part of parish life in many places before Vatican II. In their place, the years after the council saw changes such as replacing Latin in the Mass with English, removing tabernacles from main altars and tearing out Communion rails.
Measured by Vatican II’s stated intention that the liturgy be reformed to enhance lay participation, Bullivant contends, “the reforms failed.” Instead, he says, based on studies of Catholic practice in the two countries examined, not only was there a sharp drop in attendance at Mass, but many who still attend do so “less fully aware, less actively engaged and less enriched by its effects” than Catholics before the reforms.
‘The source and summit’
In recent years, the introduction of practice of Eucharistic adoration in a number of U.S. parishes appears to reflect a desire to fill the devotional gap. But weighing against it is the widespread mentality that everybody present at any Mass ought to receive Communion, whether spiritually prepared or not.
Declaring that many Catholics “do not take the Eucharist seriously because they do not take sin seriously,” Archbishop Aquila expressed hope that the “self-examination” about Eucharistic coherence now taking place would move many to lead “a coherent life that has the Eucharist and faith in Jesus as the source and summit of our lives.”
If so, the Biden controversy might have had the unintended consequence of helping bring that about. Further evidence, perhaps, that God really does write straight with crooked lines?
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.