U.S. Catholic Bishops Succumb to Partisan Politics in Eucharist Debate

By John T. McGreevy | June 22, 2021

Joe Biden, then serving as the vice president, stands next to Pope Francis during the pontiff’s 2015 visit to Washington, DC. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

That the U.S. Catholic bishops voted by a 168-to-55 margin last Thursday to draft a document on eucharistic integrity does not justify this column. That they did so only five months after the inauguration of a pro-choice, faithful Catholic as president is more newsworthy.

That they did so after being explicitly discouraged by the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the Catholic Church’s top official for doctrinal issues—is the fundamental story.

That story is about a global church in a polarized country. It begins on January 22, 1973. As many legal experts now agree, Roe v. Wade was radical in content (sweeping away 50 sets of state laws, some of which voters had made more restrictive on abortion after ballot initiatives in November 1972) and poorly argued as a matter of legal form. Twenty years later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg endorsed the decision’s outcome but regretted its sweep and logic. For her pains she was described as insufficiently pro-choice by abortion rights activists during Senate hearings for her appointment to the United States Supreme Court.

Between the late 1960s and the 1980s, abortion became legal in Canada and almost every country in Western Europe. Then—as a policy matter—it disappeared. (The issue has become a matter of public debate in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism and in Latin America since roughly 2000. In both regions, the trend is toward more availability of legal abortions.) As legal scholar and former Vatican Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon argued more than 30 years ago, a more communal sensibility, part democratic socialist and part Catholic, in Italy, West Germany and elsewhere resulted in the legalization of abortion at roughly the same time as in the United States, but with significant restrictions on abortions after the first trimester and significantly more financial aid for pregnant women. In Italy, the abortion issue vanished from public life after a public referendum in 1981. Two competing proposals, one to make abortion illegal and one to eliminate almost all restrictions on the procedure, were defeated.

What makes the United States different is the integration of the abortion issue into what has become the developed world’s most partisan political culture. In 1973, identifying one political party as “pro-life” and one as “pro-choice” was difficult. Many Democrats, including Catholic Democrats such as the young Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, favored restrictions on abortion. Many, perhaps most, Republicans did not. The American Catholic bishops were united in their opposition to legal abortion in the 1970s but did not deny the eucharist to pro-choice politicians.

What changed? Pro-choice advocates within the Democratic Party became steadily more intolerant of any middle ground, declaring access to abortion a fundamental human right as early as 1984. The intensity of this pressure has increased over the last couple of years. During the 2020 campaign, party activists successfully pressured all Democratic candidates for president, including Joseph Biden, to abandon opposition to public funding of abortions.

Activists within the Republican Party came to see attacks on legal abortion as a cost-free means of mobilizing conservative Catholics and evangelicals. (These loans will come due if the U.S. Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade next year.) The extent to which many pro-life leaders would compromise principles for policy goals became painfully clear during the last four years. A few Catholics lionized former President Donald Trump, vocally pro-choice early in his career, and hardly an advocate for traditional family values. Many more abandoned scruples about the president for the prize of conservative appointments to the federal judiciary.

Within Catholicism, John Paul II’s focus on the abortion issue over the 25 years of his papacy was extraordinary. A generation of American bishops, priests, and Catholic intellectuals took their lead from a pope who repeatedly contrasted a “culture of life” with a “culture of death.” The register was prophetic, not pragmatic. During the presidential election of 2004, remarkably, a few of the country’s more radical bishops and priests hounded Senator John Kerry, again a practicing Catholic, on the campaign trail, with claims that Kerry was unworthy to receive the eucharist. Abortion became the “preeminent” issue of concern.

Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila, a conference firebrand, now thinks Catholics unwilling to confront President Biden risk trading eternal life for the pedestrian goods of “civility” and “engagement.” Too much focus on individual conscience, Aquila tells us with a straight face, is the sort of thing that led to the crimes committed by the leaders of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. (A young Joseph Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, studying in a bombed-out Munich after 1945, came to the opposite conclusion about conscience.)

Pope Francis is as opposed to abortion as John Paul II, but his moral reasoning is more traditional. (John Paul II’s most fervent admirers used to urge obedience to the pope, not “bureaucratic” structures such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Now they feel differently.) Opposition to abortion begins the conversation; it does not end it. Francis avoids the term “preeminent”—again a traditional view—because all substantive issues from economic inequality to migration to the environment to gay marriage require a translation from theology to policy. Last month’s futile letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the U.S. bishops denied that abortion and euthanasia “constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching.”

Whatever document the bishops approve in November will probably be no more than an aggravation to President Biden. His bishop in Washington, D.C., has already announced that he will not deny Biden the eucharist. His bishop in Wilmington, Delaware, may follow suit. Vatican officials can still disarm a bishops’ conference it accurately sees as unresponsive to Roman cues. Three years ago, Pope Francis ordered the American bishops to go on retreat. He also off-handedly said about Catholic conservatives in the United States that he “welcomes their opposition.”

The damage is to the bishops themselves and to the Catholic community they lead. The nation desperately needs credible institutions that cross party lines. Among Catholics, twenty years of revelations about clerical sexual abuse and collapsing rates of affiliation among young people—in part because they perceive the Church as linked to conservative politics—have taken a terrible toll. Tying the eucharist to abortion means the bishops become another set of political, not moral, actors.

Sixty Catholic House Democrats released a letter in opposition to the bishops’ vote last week. It is not a theologically sophisticated text. It would have been better, if possible, to include Catholic Republicans. But it made a crucial point: Catholic politicians can apparently support the death penalty, place migrants in cages, dismiss climate change, and deny the legality of the 2020 presidential election without anyone worrying about “eucharistic integrity.” Only supporting legal abortion activates the bishops’ doctrine committee.

Damage is also done to the global Church and the international community. Just as the United States needs institutions that bridge partisan divides, the world needs institutions more capacious than the nation state. Catholicism remains the largest, most multicultural and multilingual institution in the world. Holding a 1.2 billion-member organization together is not an easy task, and just in the past couple years Pope Francis has tacked between German priests eager to bless same-sex couples, Chinese bishops concerned about episcopal appointment processes in an authoritarian state, and Amazonian bishops demanding married, male clergy. (Amazonian Catholics deprived of any priest for months at a time are pleading for the same eucharist that some conservative bishops would limit.)

Pro-choice Catholic politicians exist almost everywhere. Yet only in the United States do (some) bishops feel compelled to deny them the eucharist. Imagine an alternate universe: where the bishops enthusiastically welcome and work with the second Catholic president, a man unabashed about his faith and someone whose conduct in his personal and professional life has been exemplary. They might see this moment as a wonderful opportunity. They might even be able to change the president’s mind.

Bishops in thrall to a moral vision that conflates (one type of) theology with politics cannot seize the moment. The resulting inconsistency will be far more damaging to “eucharistic integrity” than the actions of any single politician.

When President Biden travels to Rome this fall, he may receive communion from Pope Francis himself. If he goes to Montreal, no problem with communion there. Same with Santiago, Warsaw, Paris, Hong Kong, Kampala, Melbourne or Moscow.

Just stay away from Denver.

John T. McGreevy is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. His Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis will be published in 2022 by W.W. Norton.

© 2011 Religion & Politics