In his America Magazine essay, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy addresses the question raised by many in the Church who call for the denial of Holy Communion to professed Catholic politicians who advocate laws that promote moral evils such as abortion, euthanasia, etc., especially President Biden.
The foundational shortcoming in the essay is that it elides a central problem: scandal to the faithful caused (a) when Catholic lay leaders openly defy and reject fundamental Church teaching, and (b) when bishops, charged with the grave responsibility of teaching authentically the Truth, fail to defend forcefully the Truth against such open and obstinate defiance.
Instead of addressing the issue of scandal, Bishop McElroy focuses on a strawman characterization of his interlocutors as “Advocates for the proposal to adopt a national policy of excluding pro-choice political leaders from the Eucharist.” These “advocates,” the bishop asserts, rely on a “theology of worthiness to receive the Eucharist.” To circumscribe the debate in such a manner does a disservice to the many thoughtful arguments made by very credible and authoritative voices who do not call for a “national policy” (whatever that means) but rather seek a unified declaration concerning the moral perils to the politicians and to the faithful who are scandalized and led into error by the politicians’ incoherent position.
The more relevant counter-position to Bishop McElroy’s is the view that the U.S. bishops as a whole and individual bishops with jurisdiction over individual dissenting politicians should (1) as Authentic Teachers, publicly defend Church teaching on fundamental moral principles against these politicians’ scandalous dissent; (2) as Pastors solicitous for the salvation of souls, admonish (if necessary, publicly) these members of their flock, warning of the peril of such scandalous dissent to their souls and to the souls of others; and (3) as Stewards of the Sacraments, uphold the theological reality and discipline of those Sacraments. Regrettably, Bishop McElroy evades this counter-position.
Bishop McElroy contends that this hypothetical “national policy” “will constitute an assault on [the Church’s unity and] charity” because, he fears, it will be seen as partisan—a “weaponization of the Eucharist.” He may be correct that “half of the Catholics of the United States will see [such a “national policy”] as partisan in nature.” However, the real question is: Would it in fact be partisan? Clearly, the answer is no. Nor is it likely to be viewed that way by honest observers. Only dishonest observers will characterize it as partisan—the same Leftist secularists who see everything through the lens of power politics and regard Catholic orthodoxy as an obstacle to their agenda. The Church must deal in the Truth, not appearances—for the sake of souls—and she cannot shrink in the face of hostile narratives from implacable enemies.
Moreover, Bishop McElroy overlooks the existing reality that unity has already (long since) been lost. The decades-long disunity caused by professed Catholic politicians openly defiant of the Church’s fundamental moral teachings (on an array of issues) is not a result of bishops too vigorously upholding Church teaching and discipline. It exists because Church leaders—ordained and lay—have for too long neglected to do so. The “go slow” approach used heretofore has not maintained unity to this point; why should we imagine things will go differently now?
Catholics at all levels, especially bishops, must embrace the reality that we do not sow division within the Church by forthrightly defending the Church’s perennial teachings against erroneous and—especially in the case of abortion—diabolical aberrations. Indeed, the only path to authentic and salvific unity within the Church is charitable and vigorous fidelity in witnessing to the Truth.
Bishop McElroy shows genuine pastoral solicitude in his fear that “the terrible partisan divisions that have plagued our nation [will be brought] into the very act of worship that is intended by God to cause and signify our oneness.” Yet the proposition that admonishing pro-choice politicians to not present themselves to receive Holy Communion need not involve such “partisan divisions” any more than the “divisions” that exist because the Church already admonishes anyone persisting in grave sin to not present themselves for Communion.
Bishop McElroy asserts that “any notion of eucharistic unworthiness…must apply not just to political leaders but to all Catholics.” In fact, it already does. Many faithful Catholics who are conscious of unrepented grave sin (which is objectively the condition of pro-abortion politicians) routinely and without fanfare follow the Church’s discipline and abstain from approaching the Sacrament.
As an ordinary minister of Holy Communion, I am edified every Sunday by the Catholics who approach with arms folded to receive a blessing in lieu of Holy Communion. I am in awe of the humility they demonstrate and, especially, the tender love they show for our Eucharistic Lord and the eucharistic assembly by their adherence to sacramental discipline. What is good enough for ordinary Catholics is good enough for political elites of any party: do not profane the Eucharist (imperiling your soul) by receiving Communion in a state of objective grave sin. And for the political elites there is the further grave moral obligation not to scandalize the ordinary faithful by stridently opposing Church teaching while pretending, by their reception of Communion, that they are “devout” Catholics.
The Church in this country faces the unprecedented spectacle of a professed Catholic president (and other high ranking government officials) insisting on (1) publicly and obstinately defying the Church’s fundamental moral teachings, thus objectively creating grave scandal (a fact that Bishop McElroy does not dispute), while simultaneously flouting the Church’s sacramental discipline. It is this behavior that is partisan: grasping for partisan advantage by pro-abortion policy commitments while posturing as faithful, observant Catholics. They seek to insulate themselves from the reality of the evil they promote by cloaking themselves in claims of sincere Catholicism. It is these politicians who, for partisan reasons, “weaponize” the Eucharist against Church teaching and against ordinary Catholics.
Bishop McElroy raises an issue of timely importance: racism, truly an objectively grave moral evil. Indeed, the sin of racism should be among the offenses against life for which Catholic politicians ought to be admonished. But the history of the Church’s actions in dealing with racist politicians does not support the bishop’s insistence that pro-abortion politicians not be publicly admonished. As reported by The New York Times, when, in 1962, New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel ordered the integration of all Catholic schools, he was opposed by prominent Catholics, including the president of a local county council. He publicly excommunicated them after they rejected his private admonition. In my Archdiocese of St. Louis, Joseph Cardinal Ritter also threatened excommunication for Catholic opponents to his desegregation of Catholic schools. Would Bishop McElroy support such sanctions against racist politicians? I would. Why not also for pro-abortion politicians?
In the cases of Archbishop Rummel and Cardinal Ritter, the legal framework of segregation and the open defiance of the Church’s discipline were readily identifiable. This is also true with respect to support for abortion, euthanasia, etc., where court decisions, legislation, rules, executive orders, and policy initiatives enable identification of dissident Catholic politicians. The difficulty in implementing such discipline with respect to “racist” Catholic public figures today lies in identifying who is advocating legal and policy initiatives that are genuinely racist.
Bishop McElroy illustrates this dilemma by referring to the cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin. In each of these examples there was an outcry about racism, but none of these people died because of a law or government policy that was explicitly racist. No politician of any religious persuasion advocated racism in those cases. The claim of “racism” by media and political partisans involved the novel claim of “systemic racism,” a concept that by definition is not identifiable in laws or policies. The political ramifications of addressing this kind of “racism” are clearly partisan, as we observe one political party posing as the champion of “anti-racism” while condemning members of the other political party as “racist” because they are not sufficiently “anti-racist.” For bishops, the application of Eucharistic discipline to Catholic politicians accused of such “racism” would be genuinely fraught with partisan implications.
Bishop McElroy fears that the relatively mild sanction of public admonition not to present oneself for Communion would result in perceptions of “partisanship” and a “weaponizing of the Eucharist.” Such P.R. consequences, however, are nothing compared to the grave dangers to souls from scandal and the undermining of Catholic moral teaching that will result if the bishops fail to strongly admonish pro-abortion Catholic politicians, especially President Biden.
[Photo Credit: Diocese of San Diego]