With the breathlessness of a Dan Brown novel, recent media narratives have focused on the question, would U.S. bishops as a body develop national policy denying Holy Communion to politicians who profess to be Catholic while publicly expressing views contrary to clear Church teaching. The short answer is “no.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has not the authority. Despite eager accounts, this was not the bishops’ focus at their recent zoomed meeting. Nor is it what any “secret” vote was about. I know. I was online.

To mitigate speculation, I will tell you what the vote was about and how I voted. The question was, “Does the body of bishops approve the request of the Committee on Doctrine to proceed with the drafting of a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church?” I voted, “yes.”

Many factors have led bishops to concur that something nationwide and proactive must be undertaken to focus on the importance of the Eucharist, its meaning, its centrality and its grace-filled power to save and transform lives. This is, in part, a response to some alarming surveys showing that many Catholics do not understand the meaning of the Real Presence, or even doubt it, but there are other factors. Among them are what we have learned through the pandemic, what it really should mean to live in a communion of faith, and our public witness that corresponds to our belief.

Because some public figures profess to be good Catholics while expressing beliefs that are in apparent conflict with Catholic teaching, many of the faithful have expressed concern and confusion about the scandal this causes. They seek redress and clarification. Some express anger toward these officials and their pastors, especially the bishops, for not, as they see it, correcting error and imposing adequate discipline.

Faith is never a wholly private matter. Beliefs have consequences in action, how we behave, conduct our lives, and make important decisions in our social, economic and political lives. It is the role of pastors to assist the faithful in forming good conscience and acting accordingly and, as necessary, advise, admonish and make corrections. Equally important is the responsibility of every disciple, every baptized person, to act in accord with the truth of what the faith teaches. Living in accord with the truth of our faith is a lifelong journey, with many temptations along the way to stray and compromise.

The sacramental life of the Church, particularly the Eucharist and Reconciliation, offers the support and correction that we all need to stay true to our baptismal promises. The Eucharist is the prime expression and formator of our unity in the faith, with Jesus and other believers. It is not just about “going to Mass” or even “receiving” Communion. It is an identity thing. We become more who we are — as Church and persons — as we fully participate in the Eucharist.

Unbelievers and those who may not be fully aware of our Eucharistic theology may see the Mass as simply a meal, a sharing of bread and wine, where a wafer symbolizes friendship, welcome and a certain commonality. It is essentially more. We believe that the bread and wine, through sacramental consecration, becomes the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, the same Jesus who is the Incarnate Word of God, who died, rose and ascended into heaven and is as real today and forever as he was while walking on the face of this earth. We believe that eating his flesh and drinking his blood (cf. John 6) is food for eternal life that incorporates us into who he really is, and in which we, as the Church, become more fully the Body of Christ, his mystical body that takes the form of all the baptized members, united in the Holy Spirit. This is a mystery that cannot ever be fully understood or explained, but it is a participation in and a transformation into the very holiness of God!

Now coming to the table without at least an intent to be sanctified, to become holy, would be to misunderstand and, effectively, deny the sacredness of the sacrament. Its holy purpose is to change us, transform us and sanctify us. This is not something we earn or demand but a gift that is given at the price of the death of Christ, the shedding of his blood for us. In approaching Holy Communion, with reverence and thanksgiving for this gift, we want to do so with open hearts, ready to be transformed and to leave behind anything, any behavior, any attitudes, that stand between us and Jesus.

The issue arises of such persons, improperly disposed, refraining from receiving or being denied reception of Holy Communion, in the context of those in public office or other positions of prominence who express or act in accord with beliefs contrary to the teachings of the faith they claim to profess. The discussion last week, however, had to do with enabling the Committee on the Doctrine of the Faith to actually go forward with a teaching document on the Eucharist which may include direction on this matter, as a draft outline has indicated. The USCCB has agreed to hold regional consultation on this before November, at which time — hopefully before — we will actually have a document to review and discuss.

Worthiness is, of course, only something God truly knows and none of us is ever fully worthy. There are serious issues, however, about obstinate cooperation in sinful actions — such as active promotion of the evils of abortion, racism and euthanasia — that may require one to refrain from reception so long as such advocacy persists, or even to be denied Communion in the case of public scandal, but this is up to the discretion of the local pastoral authority and, in more limited circumstances, even the one distributing Communion. Again, this is not a matter over which the USCCB has direct jurisdiction, despite efforts to incite, I must say, polarization and politicization among the bishops. Ultimately, despite spirited exchanges, they did not take the bait.

I choose dialogue over calling people out by name. Some public figures are beyond shaming anyway, wearing dissent almost as a badge of honor, announcing their deviance quite proudly and publicly. This, of course, could well lead to sanctions, but I prefer first to warn privately, inviting reflection on consequences and exploring alternatives, even eventual conversion, as the story of one-time abortionist, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of NARAL, attests to as possible. Fear, denunciation and despair are not prime Christian impulses.

The assurance of that confidentiality keeps the door open. People are more likely to grow and change in a relationship of mutual respect, listening and conversation. In that context, I do not hesitate to put anyone on notice, reserving corrective action for each case, depending on circumstances. I remain free to apply canonical disciplines if we find no alternative, of which I so advise them. My hope and desire are to persuade those making difficult political decisions to understand the seriousness and consequences of their public advocacy and votes, the confusion and scandal they cause, when only a party line is taken, or by reducing all morality to a matter of personal choice.

There is an obligation to speak and live the truth. Faith that is only “private” lacks integrity and, ultimately, denies its power to transform lives. To receive Holy Communion as if it does not matter how I live publicly and speak publicly about truths my faith affirms, either denying them or relegating them to lesser importance than political loyalties, is to “receive” the Lord as an unbeliever, to treat Holy Communion as if it were just a thin wafer, lacking substance, something less than the Body of Christ. If I say “Amen,” I am saying “Amen” to all Jesus and his Church teaches, not just what I choose to believe and find politically expedient — or I am not telling the truth with my life.

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